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).


Wilber's Eight-Fold Way

How Many Sides Does a Holon Have?

Andrew P. Smith

When Ken Wilber writes, terms seem to multiply like rabbits. The man who has spent his life trying to synthesize all of human knowledge almost never meets a distinction he doesn’t like. He began his career, about thirty years ago, explaining why self vs, other is an illusion; ever since, he has been filling our world with new significant others.

His central project now is to describe all of existence in terms of hierarchy. This is an ancient idea which has conventionally been understood as a ladder-like sequence of lifeforms. Many other modern writers have toyed with the concept, modifying it in various ways with recent scientific discoveries, but almost all of them preserved the linearity. Not Ken. He expanded the one scale into four, giving every form of existence an individual, social, exterior and interior aspect.

In his most recent work, the four aspects have undergone another round of breeding. In the new generation of holons, every one of the original four aspects has an inside and an outside (Wilber 2003). One might have thought that the terms interior and exterior would adequately convey these notions, but it turns out, according to Wilber, that interiors have both insides and outsides, as do exteriors.

Are you confused? Wait, there’s more. Several writers have noticed that Wilber’s four-quadrant model conflates two different meanings of the individual vs. social dynamic. One meaning used by Ken is the distinction between individual and social holons. The other meaning is the individual (or agentic) vs. social (or communal) aspect of any holon, individual or social (Goddard 2000; Smith 2001e, 2002f; Edwards 2002, 2003a-c). So perhaps sixteen different axes or quadrants are needed to convey the complete world of holons. Indeed, Goddard (2000) has made use of some of these distinctions to construct a 12-scale model of holarchy, while Edwards (2003b) now insists that there are too many necessary distinctions to put everything in one diagram. He suggests that we need separate sets of axes to represent individual and social holons, plus at least one more set for what he refers to as "unfortunate mixtures" of both.1 Unfortunately for Edwards, every holon is a mixture: all individual holons contain social holons, and vice-versa. But like Goddard (2000) before him, he has not only discovered the conflation problem, but come to the realization that the only way to address it, within the framework of the Wilber model, is to add more axes. Both these writers have shown, wittingly or not, that the four-quadrant model, in its original form, is dead.

All these problems, and I still haven’t brought streams into the discussion. In the past few years, Wilber has recognized the existence of multiple developmental paths within a single holon–for example, the cognitive (itself perhaps consisting of several different streams), emotional, interpersonal, moral and esthetic tendencies of a person. These he calls lines or streams, and since they don’t necessarily develop evenly or in parallel in any particular individual, they add still more complexities to any description of a holon.

To be sure, in the current Wilber model, streams are usually not regarded as dimensions of a holon in the same sense that exterior and interior, individual and social are . But this may just be because Wilber hasn’t figured out a clear, simple way to present a hierarchy with more than four scales or axes. In any case, they add new categories to the model just as much as the original four (now eight, I remind the reader) dimensions. When Wilber or one of his followers wants to provide a full account of holonic categories, the streams form a multiple, right along with the four quadrants, the various levels of existence, and the agency/communal dynamic.

Thus it is that Mark Edwards (2003a), in one of the most ambitious efforts yet to list all the holonic dimensions, has used a process he calls "integral indexing" to produce a total of 144 "derivative forms" or diagnostic categories". He obtains this number by multiplying the number of quadrants by the number of levels by the number of streams, along with several other factors related to vertical and horizontal interactions in the hierarchy. Edwards’ analysis, moreover, extensive as it is, has actually been greatly simplified, as he works with just three levels and three streams, though he and all other Wilberites recognize that there are many more.

I have nothing against such an analysis. In fact, I think Edwards’ numerous tables listing examples of both healthy and pathological forms of holons are very illuminating. He manages not only to categorize many individual and social phenomena, locating them in the hierarchy, but implies ways in which they should, and might be, changed or corrected. This is the kind of practical application of hierarchical theory that we need more of if this paradigm is ever going to win broad understanding and support in our culture.

The question I have, though, is over whether all these holonic distinctions are really necessary to generate all these categories of behavior and experience. Many of these distinctions I find redundant. Consider the agency/communion dynamic. According to Wilber (2000a), this is a set of horizontal interactions between individual and social holons:

Social holons emerge when individual holons commune.
The agency of a social holon is simply the set of guiding patterns to which individual members subscribe, with this subscription defining membership.

Goddard (2000) also views agency/communion as a horizontal dynamic, though unlike Wilber, he does not associate it with the individual/society relationship. Edwards (2003b), in contrast, claims agency/communion is a vertical dynamic:

Always use the terms "agency" and "communion" or "self-preservation" and "self-adaptation" to describe the vertical dimensions of holons.

This is very curious on his part, because like Wilber and Goddard, Edwards views the individual/social relationship as horizontal::

Never use the terms "individual" and "collective" or "singular" and "plural" to define the vertical dimensions of holons.

So if Edwards is to avoid contradicting himself, he has to take the position that agency/communion not only is not related to the individual/society relationship (as Goddard maintains), but that it doesn’t even operate in the same direction. Even Goddard, one of Wilber's strongest and most sophisticated critics on the individual/society relationship, does not go this far.

So who’s right? In this article, I will propose a very Wilberian solution to this dispute, and to many others like it. Everyone is (partly) right. I will argue that not only agency and communion, but all other dynamics discussed by Wilber and/or his followers as either vertical or horizontal, are both. They can be viewed as either horizontal or vertical, depending on the holon doing the observing. I will also claim that each one of these horizontal/vertical dynamics is really the same as every other one. They just appear different because they are being viewed from different perspectives. Thus rather than having multiple forms of horizontal and vertical dynamics, we have just one dynamic–both horizontal and vertical–that covers all.

Like most simple solutions to a vexing problem, this one requires some sacrifice, as a politician would say. It requires Wilber and co. to recognize, as I have been claiming all along, that social and individual holons belong on the same scale. But doing this not only clears up a great deal of redundant confusion over horizontal and vertical dynamics; it also allows us to dispense with the multiple sets of axes necessary to represent individual and social holons in the Wilber framework. In the process, we will even find a way to understand developmental streams on a single scale.

Some readers (I hope) will already be familiar with my one-scale model of hierarchy, which I contend offers a more accurate representation of certain relationships than does Wilber’s four-quadrant model (Smith 2000a). I have gone over these arguments, and their implications, at great length before (Smith 2001a-f, h, i; 2002a,f), and I have also debated several of Wilber’s followers on this issue (Smith 2000b; 2001g; 2002b-d, g). A reasonable criticism of my model that often emerges in these dialogues is that in its simplicity it leaves out too much, that it doesn’t recognize the richness of humanity, let alone of states beyond our ordinary one. The latter criticism has been disputed at some length (O'Connor 2001). This article is directed towards the former, with the aim of showing that the one-scale model can represent everything that the four-quadrant model can.

I will begin with some discussion of the basic individual vs. social and exterior vs. interior aspects of holons, showing why I believe these not only can but should be united in a single scale or axis. I will avoid as much as possible resurrection of arguments I have used previously, not only to spare readers familiar with these arguments, but also to emphasize an approach that will be relevant when the discussion subsequently moves to other aspects of holons that are now recognized by Wilber and many of his followers. These other aspects that I will examine include the inside vs. outside dynamic, several vertical dynamics, several horizontal dynamics, and developmental lines or streams. I will not discuss the topic of states. The reader is referred to Smith 2000a and 2002a for my views on this subject, which also fully lend themselves to the approach I use here.

The essence of my argument is that all these dynamics of holons can be understood as interactions between holons on the same or different stages or levels of existence. In my view, it is not only unnecessary, but often misleading, to characterize a particular holon as having multiple "faces" or dimensions. The actual phenomena that require explaining arise from specific kinds of holonic interactions, and all these interactions can be described on a single scale of existence.

Erich Jantsch and Holonic Pluralism

One of the major divisions in the four-quadrant model–upper vs. lower–distinguishes between individuals and societies, singular and plural, I and we, it and them. In making this division, Wilber apparently was strongly influenced by Erich Jantsch (1980), who proposed an earlier model of holarchy. Jantsch’s model was quite original at the time, in that it viewed evolution as occurring along two correlated and converging pathways (Fig. 1A). One of these pathways (the micro) is the conventional route of biological evolution and the major if not sole concern of most other hierarchies: atoms to molecules to cells to organisms to societies of organisms. This pathway is created by the combination of smaller, simpler holons, such as atoms, into larger, more complex holons, such as molecules.

The second pathway (the macro) traces a somewhat opposite process, in which inconceivably larger structures condense or concentrate into smaller ones: superclusters to clusters to galaxies to stars to planets. This evolutionary sequence is also very well established scientifically, but what makes Jantsch’s model novel is that he argues that the two paths are correlated, with a particular stage or step in one path associated with a particular stage in the other. Thus light atoms(hydrogen and helium) are associated with the earliest and largest structures in the universe; heavy atoms are synthesized in stars; molecules are found in planets; and the most primitive cells (prokaryotes) associated with the primordial planet earth, or Gaia. In this manner, biological and cosmic or stellar evolution are united in a single model.

Wilber, in developing his four-quadrant model, accepted Jantsch’s concept, if not all the details of his model. Specifically, Wilber argues that every step or level in the micro or biological evolutionary pathway represents an individual holon, while the corresponding level in the macro or stellar pathway is a society composed of these holons (Fig. 1B). Thus stars are societies of atoms; planets are societies of molecules; and Gaia, planet earth, is a society of prokaryotes. Further development, of course, involves societies of more advanced cells and organisms. In this way, Wilber has composed two of the four quadrants in his model, and emphasized the critical distinction between individual and society, between singular and plural.

There are three critical–and I would say, flawed--features of the Wilber model that derive directly from Jantsch’s. First, the two evolutionary pathways in the Jantsch model have become the source of a fundamental dualism in Wilber’s, that between individual and social holons. Wilber does not simply distinguish between individual and social holons, as I do, but does it in a way that forces him to treat them separately. Since they follow different developmental pathways, they require separate scales or axes for there representation. In the four quadrant model, this dualism is obscured, because Wilber claims that the individual and social quadrants represent individual and social dimensions or aspects, which apply to any holon. But as I noted earlier, this view of the individual/social dynamic is conflated with the view that there are distinct individual and social holons. He uses the quadrants in the first sense sometimes, and in the second sense other times.

The problem is that there simply isn’t room in the four-quadrant model for both senses of the individual/social dynamic. Thus Goddard (2000), Edwards (2002; 2003b) and myself (Smith 2001d; 2002f) have all pointed out that the only way to recognize both individual and social holons within the framework of the Wilber model is to add more sets of axes. Goddard and Edwards are clearly quite willing to do this, rather than abandon their commitment to this model. I am not, and claim to see a simpler solution to the problem.

A second key feature of the Wilber model that derives from Jantsch is the view that stars and planets are societies of atoms and molecules, respectively, analogous to societies of organisms, including ourselves. This is a very peculiar idea, the kind that so often emerges when a theorist is straining mightily to force recalcitrant facts into a framework he is firmly committed to. As Goddard (2003) observes:

There is something logically different between galaxies and planets on the one hand and ecosystems and societies on the other, even though both pairs belong to the macro category....More exactly, there is something logically different and ontologically 'more', in terms of a parallel coevolution, between the relationship of organisms and societies on the one hand, and the relationship of molecules and planets on the other.[2]

Indeed, there is. Stars, planets and other celestial bodies are simply aggregates of their component individual holons, with very weak emergent properties. The very simple interactions of atoms or molecules in these large bodies bear hardly the slightest resemblance to the exceedingly complex relationships of human beings in their societies. One might argue that atoms and molecules, being vastly simpler than ourselves, are bound to exhibit much simpler relationships among themselves. But in fact those same atoms and molecules, when existing in complex multiatomic and multimolecular holons in living cells, manifest far more complex relationships, ones which mathematically are surprisingly similar to many human social relationships (Smith 2003). So the problem, these simple holons might say, lies in the stars, not in ourselves. It is not their inherent simplicity that limits the emergent nature of stars and planets, but rather the simplicity of their interactions in that particular venue.

A third very problematic aspect of the Jantsch/Wilber framework is that in attempting to demonstrate a coevolution of macro and micro, it glosses over much data that don’t easily fit. According to current scientific belief, all matter in the universe up to hydrogen and helium nuclei was created in the first few minutes after the Big Bang, before there were any large-scale structures to speak of. There may have been an uneven distribution of matter at this time, but since stars had not yet formed, there could hardly be galaxies, clusters or superclusters. After a great deal more time had elapsed, and the universe had cooled somewhat, hydrogen and helium atoms formed–i.e., the ancient nuclei were able to attract and retain electrons. The resulting gasses coalesced into stars, creating enough heat and pressure to enable synthesis of the heavier elements, some of which of course are essential to life.

So not only are most of the holons in the macro sequence not related to each other hierarchically, but they have no relationship to holons in the micro sequence. In my view, it’s misleading to suggest, for example, that superclusters, clusters, or galaxies are associated with particular subatomic holons. We can only say that stars are associated with some elements, and that planets are associated with (a very few, and very simple kinds of) molecules. Beyond these two points, a correlation is not evident.

Furthermore, there are other kinds of holons in the micro or biological pathway that are ignored by Jantsch and Wilber, and which also have no corresponding holon in the macro or stellar pathway. For example, small molecules like amino acids, and macromolecules like proteins are far more complex than very simple molecules like water and carbon dioxide, and can’t possibly be lumped together with the latter. They have many emergent properties that the latter lack, and they did not exist on the primordial earth. They evolved considerably later.

How do we address these flaws of the Jantsch/Wilber view? In Fig. 1C, I have redrawn this framework to take into account some of these additional evolutionary steps. The reader will note that while I retain the macro or stellar evolutionary pathway, there are steps or stages between every macro step which have no correlative step in the macro domain. This may seem like a fairly minor modification, but the difference is critical. In Fig. 1C, the major evolutionary pathway is the biological or micro. The stellar or macro pathway provides loci or matrices where biological evolution can take place, but that is the limit of its contribution. Most important, stellar evolution has nothing to do with the emergence of social holons. These are created in the same pathway in which individual holons emerge. In fact, it is these social holons that form the stages between a particular individual holon and its associated macro collective. So the repeating unit on which the entire pattern is based is: individual holons associate to form a macro collective; social holons are created within the macrocollective; social and individual holons combine to form a higher order individual holon. These higher order individual holons then associate to form a new macro collective, and the process repeats itself.

Fig. 1C, then, is basically a one-scale model of hierarchy. It does not deny the existence of stellar or macro evolution, but downgrades its importance. The sequence star-planet-Gaia is not a hierarchical one, with each step transcending and including the former one. Each member of this sequence is a loose collective of individual holons–what I call a heap–with no potential to evolve further. As I have pointed out numerous times before (Smith 2000a), evolution is a highly selective process. On every level of existence, most individual holons do not combine into higher forms of life. The aggregates they create may serve a purpose for the evolution of higher forms, but these aggregates should not be confused with hierarchical development.

This one-scale model of hierarchy does not deny the distinction between individual and social holons; on the contrary, I have gone to great pains to provide criteria for distinguishing them (Smith 2001a). But it clears up completely the conflation of individual and social holons that is at the heart of the Wilber model, and it does so without requiring extra sets of axes, as do Goddard (2000) and Edwards (2003b). Social holons, in this model, develop in the same line or path as individual holons. Not only are all social holons composed of individual holons–as all Wilberites understand–but they in turn compose still higher-level individual holons. This is the key point that Wilberites don’t understand. If multicellular holons within organisms (and multimolecular holons within cells) have the same relationship to their component holons (cells and molecules and atoms) as societies have to their members, then societies belong on the same scale as atoms, molecules, cells and organisms. While there is an important distinction between singular and plural, all forms of existence have some of both elements. We can say that individual holons are more singular than they are plural, and that social holons are more plural than they are singular. But individual holons can and do develop into social holons, and vice-versa.

A common misconception of this view is that it implies that the relationships of individual holons to social holons should be the same as the relationship of individual holons to higher-order individual holons. Wilber constantly falls into this trap, repeating the same oversimplified view in every discussion of individual and social holons that he undertakes. Here is his latest:

There is a obviously a big difference between being a partner and being a part. To literally be a "part" means to be a component or element that is 100% subservient to the compound of which it is an ingredient. An atom is a part of a molecule, which means that it is fully contained in, and governed by, the molecule. If one holon is literally a constitutive part of another holon, then the first holon is a subholon of the latter and is basically controlled by it.

For example, if my dog Daisy Mae (who is Chester's sister) decides to get up and walk across the room, 100% of her cells, molecules, atoms, and quarks completely obey her command and move across the room with her. There is a not a democratic vote to see which cells go with her and which cells don't; 30% of her cells don't remain behind; half of the cells don't go one way and half another. Daisy's intentionality 100% subsumes the intentionality of her subholons, and they dutifully obey her commands without question.
No society, not even fascistic, has that degree of control over its members, because members are not literally units in a single huge organism. A society does not have a sensitive center, nor a central "I" awareness, nor a single intentionality; it has lots of "we" awareness, but no dominant "super-I" that is aware of and controls all its "parts." A social holon sometimes has one part (like a king) trying to control other parts (like you and me), but not only do such social systems strike us as pathological, even so, the king does not do this by instantaneous intentionality that directly makes you and me jump at a distance. There is simply no such fashion in which individuals are in all ways to societies as cells are to individuals.
The point is that an organism is not a part of a society in the same way that a cell is part of an organism. These are two different types of "parts" and "wholes": two different types of "wholes" (a whole individual and a whole system) and likewise two different types of "parts" (constitutive components and participating partners). Even those philosophers who have taken a generally "organismic" view--from Herbert Spencer to Alfred North Whitehead--have emphasized the many important differences between individual organisms and societies/systems, differences we will continue to explore as we go along.[3]

I have pointed out the fallacies with this view elsewhere, and will not reiterate all of these arguments here (Smith 2002b, c, f). Briefly, I agree with Wilber "that an organism is not a part of a society in the same way that a cell is part of an organism." That difference is the basis for making a distinction between individual and social holons. Cells and organisms are individual holons, while societies are social holons. The relationship of an individual holon like a person to a social holon it’s a member of (a society) is not the same as the relationship of an individual holon (a cell) to a higher-order individual holon it’s a member of (organism). The proper analogy here is not humans with their societies, but humans with a form of existence that transcends all societies–the earth and all its life. We do relate to this in many respects very much as cells do to an organism. Thus when the earth moves, we move with it, as surely and inescapably as the cells in Wilber’s dog. We may defy the laws of society, but we can’t defy the laws of nature.4

Missing this point along with Wilber–that societies are not necessarily the end of this developmental line–Goddard (2003) insists, "And even if cells did thus combine, we know that organism does not combine with organism to form a superorganism, but rather to form a society." Again, let us draw some lessons from the lower levels. The fact that not all organisms combine with each other to form a superorganism no more rules out that possibility than that not all atoms combine to form molecules, not all molecules combine to form cells, not all cells combine to form organisms. Before the first cells emerged, there were undoubtedly societies of atoms and molecules, the individual members of which were semi-autonomous, and which as a group were not capable of unified reproduction. Yet genuine cells did follow. At the next level, the evidence is even clearer: we still have in existence today societies of cells, such as Volvox and Dictostelium, which are not strongly interacting enough to qualify as genuine organisms, but which clearly represent transition stages in that direction. And again, real organisms did follow.

The point, then, is that a few holons at every stage do combine to form something higher. How can we possibly assert at this point that a similar development will not occur with humans and their societies? If a superorganism is forming or will form, of what would it consist if not humans and their societies?

So the problem with Wilber’s analogy is that he is comparing the wrong relationships. The relationship of a cell to an organism is like that of a human being not to any particular society, but to a much larger form of existence transcending all societies. When we frame the comparison in that manner, we see a much more similar relationship.

Of course, many people will find talk of a possible higher form of life transcending all of humanity too speculative at this point. Fine. So let’s stay with the human vs. their societies relationship, and compare it to its proper lower level analog. This is not the relationship of cells to an organism, but rather of cells to a tissue, or of atoms to a molecule.

Consider the interactions of atoms in a molecule. Wilber would have us believe that an atom "is fully contained in, and governed by, the molecule". This is a grossly simplistic view that falls apart upon closer examination. In fact, there are many kinds of atomic interactions, ranging from the weak, van der Waals forces between "inert" helium atoms to the electrostatic interactions between hydrogen and oxygen in most biomolecules to the strong covalent bonds between carbon and hydrogen in any organic molecule. In living cells, where almost all the great variety of molecules in nature is found, more than one type of these interactions are usually on display in any given molecule. For example, in any amino acid, hydrogen and oxygen are covalently bonded to carbon, but hydrogen and oxygen are bound to each other by weaker electrostatic interactions. As a result, certain hydrogen atoms can and do have the "freedom" to separate from the amino acid–they don’t always go where the amino acid goes. The same is true of many other kinds of atoms in certain situations, such as oxygen in hemoglobin, iron and other heavy metals in certain enzymes, and sodium and potassium in membrane ion channels. In all of these and numerous other examples, the molecule does not have a fixed composition, but one that varies over time, depending on the association or dissociation of certain atoms.

Even covalent bonds–the ones that Wilber clearly has in mind when he conceives of molecules–are not sacred. They are routinely broken during the steps of metabolic transformation which are ongoing in any cell. If we could somehow position ourselves within a cell and watch its processes for only a few minutes, we would see not rigid molecules moving about and controlling their component atoms with dictatorial totality, but rather a constant flux of atoms moving from one state to another–now associated with one molecule, now with another, now independent of any molecule. I really find it surprising that Wilber, of all people, would have so little appreciation for the fluidity of events at this level.

We can make the same observation with regard to the relationship of cells to tissues and organs. Wilber says that individuals may defy the orders of their government, even on penalty of death. Cells have the same option. There is a process called apoptosis by which tissues eliminate certain cells that don’t behave in certain ways (Pettman and Henderson 1998). Some cells do not "obey", and are indeed put to death.5

Having made all of these somewhat esoteric points, I will finally concede that, yes, a molecule does have a very large degree of control over its component atoms, and a tissue has a large degree of control over its component cells. This is particularly so if the molecule or the tissue is very large, containing a great many atoms or cells. But guess what? Societies have a large degree of control over their individual members. Part of this control is exerted through laws which almost all of us obey, but the laws themselves are based on something even deeper. Most people will not, for example, urinate, defecate or copulate in public. Why not? It’s not just because they’re afraid of being arrested. For most people, there is a shame or feeling of embarrassment attached to doing such acts in full view of others. Likewise, most people will not steal or in other ways take advantage of others, even in situations where they are certain they can get away with it. These and literally hundreds of other do’s and don’ts in our lives are all examples of how societies maintain a very tight degree of control over us (and when we see individuals who don’t go along with such rules, we are justified in questioning whether they are in fact really members of society at that stage). In his most recent article, Edwards (2003c) has an excellent discussion of this point, not only disputing Wilber’s view that social holons have no central agency, but arguing that “collective agency can, in many instances, have almost 100% control over the physical and intentional aspects of its subholons and even its member individuals”, that it “has immense power to control, inform, initiate, inhibit, organize and create new forms of individual intention and behavior.”

To summarize the discussion in this section–and this is really the central thesis of this article–the hierarchy is all about levels, about higher/lower relationships. It’s my contention, as will be further fleshed out in following sections, that all the holonic dynamics identified by Wilber and his followers can be understood in terms of holons interacting with other holons higher or lower than themselves. Same level or stage interactions also occur, of course, but these, as we will see, are always part of higher-lower relationships. This is the central feature of the one-scale model, and most of the rest of this article is devoted to illuminating its strengths.

The ghost in the machine

The other great division represented in the Wilber model is exterior vs. interior. I want to note at the outset that, though Wilber insists each of the four quadrants or dimensions of any holon are equal in some sense, with none privileged over the other, the exterior/interior distinction is clearly very different from the individual/social. It’s possible to talk about individual and social holons as distinctly different–the preceding discussion made it very clear that Wilber, and most of his followers, still does do this. But no one I know proposes the existence of distinct exterior and interior holons. Everyone recognizes that if this distinction applies at all, it must do so to one and the same holon.

So what is this distinction? What exactly does Wilber mean by interior? I think he believes it is a very simple concept, familiar to us all, and I think almost all his followers believe likewise. We all know what we mean when we talk about what goes on inside our heads, don’t we? Well, maybe not. What I want to show here is that the distinction between interior and exterior is not so simple as Wilber implies–that in fact, if interior and exterior really are two aspects of any particular holon, it ought to be difficult to distinguish them conceptually.

Let’s start with what Wilber says about interiors. He commonly uses the example of language. According to him, two people who speak the same language share an interior space:

…you and I can live next door to each other, but if you speak Serbian and I don't, then you and I do not share much of a cultural "we." In that instance, you are outside my I; you are also outside my circle of friends (or intimate we's); and you are even outside my entire circle of spoken communication--in that regard, you are "all Greek" to me, or outside any we-boundary of mutual understanding. What you and I do share, however, is geographical or physical proximity, and therefore we are both parts of, for example, the same local ecosystem--we share an exterior social system, but not all aspects of an interior culture.[6]

In this passage, Wilber is referring to the interior plural, the space that two or more people–"we"–inhabit. But it could just as well apply to the interior singular, since even when we are not communicating directly with other people, language is constantly in our minds. Many philosophers believe there is no interiority at all, or consciousness in a certain sense of the word, without language (Seager 1999). In any case, the essential point is just that, according to Wilber, the experience we have when we speak with another person is an interior phenomenon, not an exterior one.

But what exactly is it about the language experience that is interior? Obviously, not everything about the process of communicating in a language is interior. Language is associated with certain gross physical processes, such as talking and gesturing, as well as certain biochemical and physiological processes in the brain. All of these processes and events are exteriors, in Wilber’s model. So what I want to get at it is the aspect of communication that is truly an interior phenomenon.

To approach this issue, let’s begin by considering a zombie. A zombie, in the sense used by philosophers of mind, is a person or other form of life–obviously hypothetical–whose observable behavior is just like that of other persons or members of that species, but who has no interior experience at all. If you were to meet a zombie and carry on a conversation with him or her (it?), you would not be able to distinguish it from a real person (unless, of course, you believe some kind of interior resonance is possible between individuals).

Now though a zombie is purely hypothetical, everyone should accept that it is conceivable. Though zombies apparently have not evolved on earth, and perhaps could not have, there is no logical reason why a zombie could not exist. Natural evolution aside, it is entirely plausible that some form of artificial life could be created that would behave in this manner. Indeed, it is quite likely that in the future there will be computers sophisticated enough to carry on a conversation with people. These computers may not mimic people in other respects, such as physical appearance, body language, and so forth, but there is no reason in principle why they could not be programmed to speak and understand a language. Nothing that we know about how language is created and used seems to preclude this possibility.7

The logical possibility of a zombie in fact presents several problems for Wilber8. The one relevant to our discussion, however, is simply the question we started with: what is the interior of a human? Wilber describes it as an experience we have when we communicate in language, but it appears that much of the language process can proceed without any interior at all. So what exactly is going on with a human being engaged in language that is not going on with a computer?

Most people would probably say that a human being understands language, extracts meaning from it, whereas a computer just blindly responds to it by applying certain rules to any input to generate an output. We would argue, as philosopher John Searle did in a famous essay (Searle 1981), that the computer has no "understanding" of what it is "hearing" But then we have to ask what it means to understand something.

Consider another example, in some ways the opposite of the zombie that can produce and respond to human speech without any interiority. Let’s go back to Wilber’s own example of a Serbian who doesn’t know English. Wilber says this individual lacks the interior experience of an English speaker. Yet this Serbian does have an interior, one about as complex and fully-developed as that of anyone who knows English Wilber can only argue that the Serbian’s interior is different, not that it is absent or even inferior to that of an English speaker 9. It is absent only in the sense that when English is being spoken, the Serbian has no, as we say, understanding of it.

So while the zombie can speak and respond to English, but has no interior, the Serbian can’t speak or respond to English but does have an interior. She just has no English interior. Why not? Because she lacks the ability to perform certain operations on the English sounds that she hears, operations which decode the sounds into what we call meanings or information, and which then encode other information into sounds which are spoken. In other words, the Serbian mostly lacks just the ability to do what the zombie or computer can do.

Now we saw before that all the zombie or computer has is an exterior. Its ability to speak and respond to English involves nothing more than the physical processes that go on inside any computer. It’s also apparent that what the Serbian lacks, what prevents her from speaking, responding to, and understanding English, is also a certain kind of exterior. It is just those physiological processes in the brain that decode and encode English words. English speakers have and make use of these processes, having developed them while learning that language; Serbians lack them.

The point I’m trying to make here is that exterior processes are essential to all aspects of language. They are essential not simply to the outward, behavioral features–vocalization–but even to those processes in the mind that we refer to as meaning or understanding. For a person can have a very complex and rich interior, and yet lacking these exterior processes, have no understanding of a certain language whatsoever.

So it seems that no matter how diligently we focus our search for interiors–to identify those aspects of them that distinguish them from exteriors–we always end up with the latter. We have examined Wilber’s own example of language, have asked ourselves what is the key difference between two people who speak a different language, and we have found that it is an exterior. We agree that the Serb has an interior, yet she doesn’t understand English. We add an exterior–certain processes in the brain–and bingo! We have understanding, meaning, and anything else we associate with language use.

So what is going on here? Am I trying to prove that there is no interior, as some eliminative philosophers seem to claim (Dennett 1991; Churchland and Churchland 1998). Hardly. My entire argument presupposes that there is an interior. Nor am I claiming that interiors can be completely reduced to, or accounted for, by exteriors, as the majority of today’s philosophers and virtually all scientists believe. I stand firmly with Wilber here in denying these claims. The point, rather, is just that whatever we can say about interiors, whatever description of them we can offer, involves processes that seem to be completely accounted for by exteriors.

Here is another, simpler example. All of us who are not colorblind understand the experience of seeing the color red, and that it is an experience different from seeing the color green. But there is almost nothing we can say about these experiences, except that they are different. And that difference can be accounted for by exteriors. Green is different from red because wavelengths of a different frequency strike the retina, activate different types of cells, which activate different neuronal pathways into the brain, and so on. There is something in the experience of seeing each of these colors that is not captured by any understanding of physiological processes, but there is, to repeat, nothing we can say about this experience. We use the term red to label a certain experience we have, but we can’t really describe this experience. Likewise, we use certain words to label certain emotions we may have, but we can’t really describe them.

This really shouldn’t be surprising; it just means that interiority is a phenomenon beyond words, beyond description. As Wilber himself has noted, it isn’t just higher consciousness that is ineffable; all forms of consciousness, i.e., interiority, are ineffable. Whenever you start trying to describe interiority–a raw sensation, like the color red, or a raw emotion, like anger--you end up describing an exterior. But that being the case, interiority is not something that can really be represented in any model of reality. Anything that is representable is really an exterior. We might say, at best, that the words Wilber and others use to indicate interiors may point to them–they may remind us that there is something there that is not exterior. Surely it’s important not to forget this. But since the very words that are used to do the pointing refer to exteriors, this labeling of interiors is very likely to cause confusion and misunderstanding.

Wilber’s view of interiors is misleading in another way. In his four-quadrant model, holons at every level of existence are associated with a particular level of interiority. Our own level is associated with an interiority that includes such features as certain kinds of thinking, certain kinds of emotions, a certain kind of identity, and so on. We will return to these features later when I discuss the concept of developmental streams. But the point I want to make here is that the level of interiority that we experience is very distinguishable, in the four-quadrant model, from that associated with other, lower levels of existence. The latter include, in Wilber’s view, members of earlier societies, as well as lower organisms, cells, and so on down.

What’s wrong with this? The problem is that our interiority is not limited to those features that are nominally on our own level. We also experience lower forms of interiority, those that in Wilber’s model are the properties of lower forms of existence. Simple sensory sensations, for example, are experienced by all vertebrates, and probably most invertebrates. Many relatively simple emotions are experienced by at least the higher vertebrates. Some forms of cognition are available to non-human primates, and certainly to humans that, in Wilber’s model, are below our level of existence.

Wilber can hardly deny that we have all these lower forms of interiority available to us, nor would he want to10. But the only way he can address this fact, in the framework of his model, is to view "us"–you and I and other modern humans–as existing on not one but many levels. In fact, because of the "transcend and include" feature of holarchy, where higher forms retain features of lower, most forms of existence must be viewed as sprawled out over several, often many, of Wilber’s levels. This further complicates the four-quadrant model, and makes it difficult to locate on it any particular form of life.

In my one-scale model, this problem is addressed by making use of the distinction between levels and stages of existence. On any level of existence, all individual holons are at the bottom, while various forms of social holons composed of these individual holons create higher stages within the level. So we humans, like other organisms, are at the bottom of a level of existence, with our societies forming higher stages. Like other organisms, we experience certain basic forms of interiority, like sensory sensations. Higher forms of interiority, however, including most emotions as well as all kinds of thinking, are considered properties not of individual holons, but of social holons. Organisms like ourselves may experience these interior properties to the extent that we are members of these societies and participate in them.

These relationships are certainly implied in any portrayal of the Wilber model. For example, Edwards (2003a) lists a number of "basic consciousness structures", that is, levels of interiority, that include rule mind, role mind, formal-reflexive mind, vision-logic, and so forth (see Table 5a in his article). Clearly, each of these levels of interiority is associated with a particular level of social development, and it is this social arrangement that in fact allows the interiority to be experienced. Thus to have a rule mind or role mind, enabling the individual to identify him/herself as a member, he/she obviously must be a member of a certain kind of group. Moreover, such membership is also necessary for the individual to be capable of what Edwards calls "representational mapping" or symbolic cognition, because the intellectual tools for representation or the use of symbols only become developed when an individual interacts with some minimum number of other individuals. Such cognitive abilities are irrelevant to any organism that does not extensively communicate with other organisms. Likewise, individuals at this level can experience certain emotions, such as joy, hate and belongingness, because these emotions are associated with interactions with other people.

So my location of higher interior properties with animal and especially human societies is quite consistent with the data that are the foundation of the Wilber model. But by explicitly representing these interiorities as social properties I avoid the problem of having to locate individual holons over several different levels. Furthermore, as we shall see in later sections, my representation allows us to view many dynamics in the hierarchy in simple terms of interactions between higher and lower holons. This avoids many redundancies that plague those who try to fit these dynamics into the four-quadrant framework.

Inside vs. outside

As noted in the beginning of this article, Wilber (2003) has recently added the dialectic of inside vs. outside to his already crowded hierarchy. The two terms are applied by Wilber to both exteriors and interiors, and to individual and social holons. Because Wilber’s article is a work-in-progress, I will not quote passages in which he defines these terms by example, but I will attempt to interpret these descriptions. I will limit the discussion to individual holons, since Wilber treats individual and social holons in similar fashion.

Wilber’s concept of inside and outside for exteriors is quite obvious and straight-forward–nothing tricky here. The outside of the exterior of a holon–say, an organism–is everything outside of it, its entire environment. The inside of the exterior is all the organs, tissues, and cells that compose the organism, and their physiological processes. Though these can’t be seen from the outside, they are still exteriors according to Wilber’s definition.

The same outside vs. inside distinction can be made for a cell, a molecule, an atom, and so on. Everything has an inside and an outside. This distinction is so obvious that one might wonder why Wilber even brings it to our attention. One reason, apparently, is to point out that different approaches to knowledge focus on one or the other. A behavioral psychologist is concerned with the outside of an organism’s exterior, whereas a physiologist examines the inside. Other disciplines, covered by Wilber in his usual comprehensive fashion, may focus on the inside or outside exterior of other kinds of holons, including social as well as individual ones.

In any case, this inside vs. outside distinction for exteriors is easily accounted for in the one-scale model. The inside exterior of any individual holon is just its component holons, which form stages on the level below it. Thus an organism is composed of organs, tissues and cells, which are hierarchically related to each other as well as to the organism. The outside exterior is also composed of other holons, on its own level (other organisms), and above it (societies of organisms). If one wants to consider these component holons as different faces or dimension of the organism, conceptually distinct from each other, fine. But the redundancy should be obvious. The inside exterior of any holon is the same as the outside exterior of some other holon, and vice-versa. What Wilber is in effect doing is giving one holon two different names or dimensions, according to what holon is perceiving it. In other words, the distinction is one of perspective. This is a critical concept that will figure prominently later, when I discuss vertical and horizontal dynamics in the hierarchy.

Now let’s consider the insides and outsides of interiors, as Wilber understands them. These are a little more complex and difficult to grasp than those of exteriors, particularly without quoting from Wilber. I will just say that they correspond–in large part though apparently not perfectly–to another dynamic that is widely recognized by philosophers of mind. This is the distinction between public and private experience, or between direct and indirect perception (Seager 1999; Goddard 2000).

Public experience is that which we all share, or can share. It includes, for example, our view of an external world–trees, rocks, cars, other people, and so on. This kind of experience is also referred to as direct perception, because it is relatively untainted by thoughts, feelings and other mental processes that are not part of this external world. I say "relatively", because it is well established that before any human experience becomes conscious, it is subjected to extensive processing and perhaps editing by the mind (Dennett 1991). But at least such experiences have a sense of directness to them, and this I take it corresponds to Wilber’s interior inside, which he describes (obviously overstating the case) as "naked awareness".

Private experience, in contrast, is composed of all those thoughts, feelings and other forms of mental activity that we don’t and can’t share with others. Many, perhaps most, represent operations that we perform on direct experience, as when we remember something we saw. But private experience may also involve deep thoughts and feelings that have no obvious relationship to anything in our public experience. We can of course describe many of these experiences, and communicate these descriptions to others, but the actual experience is personal and unique, in a way–according to many philosophers, at any rate–that public experience is not. This type of experience corresponds to some extent to Wilber’s outside interior, an example of which he provides as visions and imaginings that go on in the mind.

As I said earlier, I don’t believe, on the basis of my reading of this work-in-progress, that Wilber’s inside/ouside distinction corresponds exactly to private and public experience. Frankly, I don’t find Wilber’s discussion here completely clear or convincing. Nevertheless, I don’t think any differences that may exist between his inside/outside interior dynamic and the public/private distinction affect the argument about how to understand this dialectic in terms of the one-scale model. So I will base my argument on the more widely accepted public/private distinction.

As I have discussed elsewhere (Smith 2001b), both of these types of experiences can be understood in terms of holons observing, or interacting with, other holons that exist in a particular hierarchical relationship with them. Public experience occurs when a holon observes another holon on its own level/stage, or on a level or stage below it. Thus we directly experience inanimate objects, artifacts, other organisms, and other people in an exterior sense. Private experience is observation of holons above the observing holon. In my model, when we think, feel and engage in other sorts of mental activity, we are interacting with social holons, which in the one-scale model exist on a stage above us within the same level of existence. All thinking, in my view, requires interactions with other members of a society, not necessarily directly and immediately, but in the sense that the ability to form any mental concepts presupposes membership in a society that provides the necessary rules and operations underlying these concepts. No single individual acting alone can create these rules. Likewise, I believe all emotions are based on some form of social organization, though the society involved may be far simpler, in the extreme (but not uncommon) case consisting only of a self-other encounter.

Notice that this view of inside/outside of interiorities is closely related to the inside/outside dynamic of exteriors. The outside of an exterior of a holon is same stage or higher stage holons it interacts with-–the other cells of a tissue are the outside of any one cell in that tissue, for example. The inside of an exterior of a holon is lower holons it contains–-such as the organs and tissues of an organism. Likewise, private experience, which I take it is closely related to Wilber’s outside interior, is the experience of a holon interacting with holons above it–individuals in their societies. Public experience, or Wilber’s interior inside, occurs when a holon observes or interacts with holons below itself.

This parallel is not really surprising. We saw earlier that interiors are very closely related to exteriors, so intimately associated that anything we say about interiors by way of description turns out to be an exterior. So we would expect that the inside and outside of exteriors would be closely related to those of interiors. The larger point, though, is that the inside and outsides of holons, as Wilber defines them, can be understood as processes involving interactions of these holons with higher and lower (or same stage) holons, respectively. There is no need to postulate some irreducibly separate feature or dimension of holons to account for insides or outsides. The phenomena are generated by specific holonic interactions.

Vertical dynamics

So far, we have examined the basic four quadrant nucleus of the Wilber model, along with the new inside/outside dynamic. I find that all eight of the resulting dimensions can be adequately represented on a single scale, through the interactions of higher and lower holons. Now I want to apply the same approach to an additional series of dynamics that are often associated with the Wilber model. In his recent article, Edwards (2003a) discusses these dynamics extensively, so I will focus my arguments on his treatment of them.

Edwards (2003a) lists two kinds of vertical dynamics in his integral index, evolutionary or growth trends or tendencies, and involutionary or integrative ones. Though Edwards nowhere, as far as I can tell, actually defines these terms, his meaning is fairly clear from context. Evolution is an "ascending" force that drives or leads the holon to higher levels of development, while integration is a stabilizing force that consolidates the current components or features of the holon.

There is no question that evolution/integration is a universal dynamic, found throughout the hierarchy. My only quarrel with Edwards on this issue is that he sees two dynamics here, whereas one seems to me to suffice. Edwards’ view is indicated in Table 1 and Fig. 7 of his article (Edwards 2003a). His point seems to be that both the evolutionary drive and the integrative drive can be either too strong or too weak, so that either excessive evolution ("evolutionism" in Fig. 7) or excessive integration can result from two kinds of imbalances. Excessive evolution can be the consequence of of either too strong an evolutionary drive, which "overpower[s] involutionary drives", or from too weak an involutionary or integrative drive. Likewise, excessive involution would result from either too strong an involutionary or integrative drive, or too weak an evolutionary drive.

This categorization of excessiveness I find excessive! Surely the key factor here is the balance between evolution and integrative tendencies. We don’t look at evolution, divorced from integration, and say it’s too strong or too weak; it’s too strong or too weak only relative to integration. The only other parameter the evolutionary drive of a particular holon could be compared to, for the sake of demonstrating its excessiveness or inadequacy, would be the mean or norm of the evolutionary drives in some group of individuals. While much of Edwards’ argument does seem to imply reference to a mean or norm (for example, his entire discussion of pathologies in holons presumes that a norm of some sort exists and can be identified), I’m pretty sure he does not intend that here. We could say, for example, that Ken Wilber has an extremely strong evolutionary drive in at least some aspects or streams of development, but as long as his development proceeds with an adequate amount of integration, we don’t accuse him of manifesting a developmental pathology. In other words, there is no such thing (at least within reasonable limits) of an evolutionary drive that is too strong, if it is balanced by an equally strong integrative drive. And vice-versa. An evolutionary drive in one individual may be very strong or very weak relative to that in another individual, but if it is balanced, rather than overwhelming or overwhelmed by, the integrative drive, then there is no pathology.

Edwards (2003a) himself seems to recognize this to some extent. He refers to an "evolutionary-involutionary cycle" that comprises a single "meta-dynamics". And he concedes that:

In general, it seems to be the case that pathologically strong evolutionary dynamics are coupled with pathologically weak involutionary ones and vice-versa. Hence, evolutionary excess is strongly associated with severe integrative deficiency, and involutionary excess is strongly associated with severe delays in growth.

The strong association, in my view, is by definition. We need only one dynamic here, not two.

Surprisingly, there are other vertical dynamics that Wilber has discussed that Edwards does not consider, such as transcendence/immanence. In my model, this set of dynamics is really the same thing as evolution/integration, though when the vertical forces are entirely within one level, I refer to the upward pole as transformation, not transcendence. The point is that transformation/transcendence is the drive of a holon to create a higher holon, and this drive, in any hierarchical model, is what evolution is all about. Conversely, immanence, in Wilber’s poetic words, is the drive of a holon to embrace all its component holons. This is clearly integration by just another name.

In summary, I recognize one set of vertical dynamics, which can be called either evolution/integration or transformation/immanence (see Fig. 2). These terms are also equivalent to yet another dialectic that Edwards identifies, self-preservation (or self-maintenance) and self-adaptation. The equivalence is apparent in my model because self-maintenance of any holon is a process of strengthening the interactions of its component holons, while adaptation is a process by which it interacts with higher holons in which it is embedded. As far as I can tell, Edwards (2003b) agrees with this view.

Horizontal dynamics

Edwards (2003a) goes on to define two kinds of horizontal dynamics, translational and integral cycle. Translational dynamics involves hetarchical interactions between holons, and according to Edwards, these interactions "operate within the same level of one or even two quadrants". Integral Cycle dynamics "is the holistic drive that holds the four quadrants in creative mutuality. ..generat[ing] the four-fold dialectic nature of the quadrants."

I certainly accept that there are horizontal dynamics operating in the hierarchy, but how distinct are they from vertical dynamics? Consider some of Edwards’s own examples. He cites as a translational dynamic "the maintenance of a physical self through metabolic processes" (Table 4). This, to me, sounds a lot like an involutionary or integrative process. And indeed, in the same table, Edwards provides a similar example of an integrative process: "nutrition…therapies". Likewise, still in Table 4, he gives as another example of a translational process the maintenance of "egoic self through mental-verbal processes", and another integrative example, "talk therapies".

So is translation, a horizontal process, really the same thing as integration, a vertical one? Yes and no. Integration involves translational processes, and so does the other pole of the vertical dynamic, evolution. This is perhaps easier to appreciate on lower levels of existence. Consider a group of atoms interacting to form a molecule. The interactions are hetarchical–among holons on the same plane of existence–but they result in a higher form of existence, a molecule. So these horizontal or hetarchical interactions are also part of an evolutionary process, that creates a higher form of existence, as well as an integrative one, that stabilizes the higher form (Fig. 2).

The same is true of individuals interacting to form a large social organization. The group, in my model, is higher than the individual. Though Wilber and most of his followers don’t accept this view, they do accept that a great many higher properties, involving ways of thinking, feeling, relating to others, and so on, only emerge in individuals that belong to certain kinds of societies (some of these properties are listed in Tables 2 and 5a in Edwards 2003a). So the hetarchical interactions of individuals result in evolution and emergence of new exterior and interior properties. Integration of these properties is also obviously associated with these same hetarchical interactions. Integration in fact can be seen as a process by which the higher holon encourages or strengthens the hetarchical interactions of its lower holons (Fig. 2).

So, again, are translation and evolution/integration the same? It depends on the point of view of the holon (Fig. 2). From the point of view of an individual atom, its interactions with other atoms is a translational process. But from the point of view of the emerging molecule it is an evolutionary/integrative process. The same is also true of interacting humans, except that now our participation in societies–our ability to share in certain properties of higher social holons on our level--decidedly gives us the ability, to a limited extent, to understand both kinds of dynamics. When I interact with other people, I can appreciate the horizontal or hetarchical nature of these interactions. But when these interactions lead to mental, emotional or spiritual growth, I can also see the vertical dynamics of the process (see Fig. 2).

I have discussed the point-of-view issue at length elsewhere (Smith 2000a,c), and it is a key concept in my criticism of Wilber and his followers. I contend that many phenomena or holonic features that seem too different or distinct to treat as a single dimension or feature only appear that way from the point of view of a particular holon. When a broader view involving holons at more than one stage or level of existence is adopted, the two processes can be seen to be different perspectives (a new and highly favored term of Wilber’s) of a single process (Fig. 2).

In this light, let’s now consider Edwards’ other category of horizontal dynamics, Integral Cycle dynamics. As noted earlier, Edwards (2003a) sees this as critical to "holding together", so to speak, the four quadrants or dimensions of holons. He gives as an example, "Learning and cognitive development is a dynamic process that involves the agentic quadrants …as well as the communal quadrants."

I agree completely that learning involves both agentic and communal processes. But are these processes horizontal, vertical, or both? As I have argued elsewhere (Smith 2001b; 2002f), agency is just another name for integration, while communion is evolution. That is, they again represent the same processes, from a different perspective (see Fig. 2). When a holon acts agentically, it is interacting with other holons on its own stage of existence–to distinguish itself from them--or with holons below it to consolidate them (see Fig. 2). Conversely, when a holon is acting communally, it is interacting with holons on its plane of existence, to become more connected with them, or above it, to become more a part of them. This view is a natural consequence of my one-scale model, in which social and individual holons are on the same axis, with social holons higher than their component members. In this model, communion and agency are both vertical processes, but also both horizontal processes–because, as we just saw, vertical and horizontal processes occur together, with the nature observed depending on the observer.

To summarize this section, I do not find the need to identify multiple vertical and horizontal dynamics, as catalogued by Edwards. This does not mean, I emphasize, that I deny the existence of the many classes of normal and pathological phenomena that he describes. It just means that in my one-scale model, all these classes and phenomena can be generated by the interactions of various kinds of holons with each other, together with attention to the point of view of the holons involved. How this is actually accomplished in practice should become clearer in the following section.


According to Wilber, development through the hierarchy, for any given holon, does not occur along a single path, but along multiple paths, which are parallel in the sense that each is ascending, or attempting to ascend, in the hierarchy, but which nevertheless may proceed at very different rates or tempos:

Through the developmental levels or waves of consciousness, move various developmental lines or streams (such as cognition, morals, affects, needs, sexuality, motivation, and self-identity). In any given person, some of these lines can be highly developed, some poorly (or even pathologically) developed, and some not developed at all…The reason appears to be that the numerous developmental lines are to some degree independent modules, and these modules can and do develop in relatively independent ways (but not totally independently).11

Edwards (2003a) describes pathological development as follows:

When there is uneven development across streams the holon can lack evolutionary-involutionary balance and unity in integrative grow(th). Stream pathologies can occur within individual and social holons. In individual holons this often results in unstable self-identity and erratic behavior…In collective holons stream pathologies lead to inequitable power relations, "class warfare", irreconcilable differences between internal laws and foreign policies…Stream pathologies can apply to specific lines in specific quadrants or more generally across lines and/or quadrants.

Recognition of developmental streams presents perhaps the biggest challenge to construction of a relatively simple and uncluttered model of hierarchy. This phenomenon, more than any other, seems to reveal the messiness of holons and their interactions. To address it, we begin with recalling the earlier discussion, where I argued that interiors (or the exteriors that seem inseparable from them) are usually closely associated with particular social holons. Higher forms of cognition, affect, morality, identity, and so on are all, in my view, social properties that individuals participate in by virtue of their membership in these societies. I supported this claim by pointing out that the complex rules of language, morality, higher emotions, and so on, can only emerge through the interactions of large numbers of individuals.

So in my view, the flow of developmental streams is a process involving a) emergence of a higher social holon manifesting certain properties; and b) participation of the individual in these properties. Both of these processes involve the horizontal/vertical dynamic I discussed earlier. Societies emerge through the communion of individuals, who may then participate in these societies, at which point they may begin viewing communion as a vertical process, calling it transformation, adaptation, or some other similar term.

Let’s consider the development of a child from this point of view. A child is born in a social environment that consists of several stages of social holons–simple self/other relationships, families, communities, nations, a global culture. The child’s participation in these begins with the smallest, least complex of these–self/other relationships, families–and works its way up to the higher ones. At each stage, the child’s participation in a social holon allows him/her to realize a particular set of properties appropriate to that stage–a certain kind of thinking, a certain kind of feeling, a certain kind of morality, and so on. Only at the highest stage, when the now young adult is interacting with national or global-level cultures, does he/she realize the highest possible forms of these properties.

This is fairly straightforward. The problem arises when we try to understand uneven development. How can someone exhibit, say, a high level of cognitive development, but a low level of emotional, moral or interpersonal development? If equally highly developed properties of each of these streams are associated with any particular social holon, how can someone interacting with that social holon not realize them all?

The key to understanding this is to recognize that a) society at any particular stage includes all the lower stages; thus a nation has communities, families, and self/other relationships; b) any individual in a society interacts, to some extent, with all these lower stages; and most critically, c) each developmental line requires a unique pattern of such interactions.

Consider the cognitive stream, for example. This involves mostly interaction of the individual with one of the highest and most complex social holons existing, the larger society in which he/she lives. To develop a high degree of cognitive ability, it is not necessary to have extensive interactions with lower social groupings, such as single friends/acquaintances, families, or small communities. This is shown most clearly by the lonely intellectual who communes mostly through books and cognitive reflection. Therefore, the cognitive stream can be represented by very strong interactions of the individual with the highest or one of the highest social holons of which he/she is a member, along with relatively weak interactions with less complex social holons.

Of course, different societies may be developed to different degrees, and this generally places limits on the cognitive development of their individuals. Referring again to Edwards (2003a), we note that different levels of cognition are associated with different levels of individual as well as social development (Tables 5a,c, 6a,c). But in any particular society, we can say that the most cognitively advanced individuals are those that interact most effectively with the highest social grouping that exists.

Now let’s consider another developmental stream, affect or emotion. I said before that the highest emotional development, like the highest cognitive development, is realized by the individual’s interaction with the highest stage social holon. This is implied by the Wilber model. However, this is somewhat of an oversimplification. The highest stage social holon provides the individual with certain rules and values that are to guide his/her emotional development. For example, at a certain stage, we are taught when it is, and is not, permissible to express certain emotions.

In the case of affect, however, individual interactions with the highest social grouping can't be the entire story. Many, though not all, human emotions are expressed only in the context of smaller social relationships, such as those between two people, or between one person and his/her family, or between one person and members of a group of some size. So we can conclude that for emotional development to proceed at its greatest pace and to its greatest degree, strong interactions between the individual and other individuals, and between the individual and relatively small groups of individuals, are also necessary.

The necessity of these interactions is what distinguishes, in my model, the cognitive stream from the affect stream. To repeat, development through the cognitive stream requires primarily that the individual interact strongly with the highest and most complex society of which he/she is a member. Development through the affect stream requires strong interactivity with the highest society, but also with smaller social groupings.

In a similar fashion, we can define the interpersonal stream as one in which interactions with single other individuals are of paramount importance. This is not to say that interactions with higher social groupings are not necessary. They must be for all or nearly all developmental streams, because only by participating in the highest society are we introduced to the general concepts that promote interpersonal interactions, as well as affect, and other developmental streams such as moral, esthetic, motivational, and so on. But the emphasis for the interpersonal line is clearly on interactions between one individual and another.

Without going any further in this analysis, I think the general treatment is clear (see Fig. 3). Each developmental line or stream traversed by an individual results from the growth of a pattern of interactions between the individual and a variety of social holons, ranging in size from a simple relationship between that individual and one other person, to the largest and most complex society of which the individual is a member. When we view development as an entirety from this point of view, we see it as a process by which individual and social holons form a very extensive series of interactions with each other–a very complex web that is constantly growing new links.

Fig. 3 can actually serve as two kinds of representations. First, it depicts the pattern of individual-social holonic interactions for some particular developmental line. That is, any property such as affect or morality or interpersonal behavior involves a unique pattern of individual-social links, and some representation like Fig. 3 can show this. But Fig. 3 can also represent a particular individual’s development through all the streams. That is, any particular individual can be said to have a pattern or preference in his interaction with various stages of social holons, and that pattern can also be shown in a representation like Fig. 3. What I am saying, in other words, is that we can sum up the interactions for each developmental line for a particular individual, and come up with a composite pattern. Any individual can be said to have a certain number and strength of interactions with each social holon he is embedded in, and Fig. 3 shows the relative numbers and strengths of all of them. Obviously, these parameters can change over time, but Fig. 3 can represent them at a particular time or stage in development, or can show an average over some period of time.

This view of developmental streams allows us to represent them on a single scale of existence. That is, while of course we can’t represent different individuals on a single scale or set of axes, we can represent a human being in the abstract, as a particular kind of holon. Any hierarchy is supposed to be able to do this, but most hierarchies, including Wilber’s, cannot represent multiple developmental streams on one axis or set of axes. The understanding of developmental streams I have discussed here allows us to do that, by drawing the scale with a particular configuration of interactions between the individual holon representing a person and the various social holons representing human societies.

This view of developmental streams also has applicability to lower levels of existence. Consider a single cell, a neuron in the brain. There are in this cell’s repertoire many analogs to human features, such as cognition (the ability to perform calculations on incoming impulses from many other neurons, and create a summing output response); emotion (positive and negative responses to these impulses, to neurotransmitters or hormones, or to other factors in the cell’s immediate environment); interpersonal behavior (communication with other neurons); and identity (recognition of a distinction between everything within the cell’s membrane, and everything outside of it). We now can appreciate how each of these developmental qualities manifests itself when the neuron interacts with larger groups or societies of cells. Neuronal cognition, the ability to perform logical operations on a large number of inputs from other neurons, clearly depends primarily on the strength of the neuron’s interactions with the largest and most complex group of cells it is associated with, because this will maximize the complexity of the input it receives. Affect and interholonic behavior depend more on interactions with individual other cells, because this kind of behavior is manifested in reception from and response to, one other cell at a time. Yet like affect and interholonic behavior at our own level, it also depends to some extent on the neuron’s connection with the largest social group as well, because its multiple inputs from this largest group modulate the ability of the neuron to interact with single other neurons.

There are even differences in development of different streams for different neurons. Neurons in the cerebral cortex have a high degree of cognitive development, as understood here, whereas cells in lower parts of the brain, not to mention cells outside of the nervous system, have a much lower degree. This is a direct reflection of the fact that the latter kinds of cells are less highly connected to other cells. Certain non-neuronal cells that function largely in one-to-one interactions with other cells, such as immune cells, may be said to be very highly developed in streams where interactions with lower stage social holons are more important.

Notice that in this example, the holons are highly segregated according to function. That is, all neurons in a particular part of the brain are likely to exhibit a similar pattern of development, such as high in cognition, and lower in affect. Likewise, neurons in another part of the brain, or non-neuronal cells in another tissue, are fairly uniform with respect to their degree of development in each stream. I believe this is a general feature of lower levels, where development of the entire level is complete. On our own level, development is not complete; that is, there is, apparently, no fully evolved higher level individual holon transcending us and our societies, though one may be emerging (Smith 2001h). It may be that such segregation, which increases the efficiency of function of the transcending individual holon, becomes more prominent as the level further develops. Even at this phase in human social development, we can see some evidence of it. People who are highly developed in some lines are more likely to be found associated with one another (e.g., intellectuals in universities) than with others.


We have seen that in a one-scale view of hierarchy, individual and social holons form a single evolutionary sequence. In this pathway, individual holons develop into social holons, and vice-versa, and while this process is going on, there are extensive and growing interactions between individual holons, and between them and social holons. These horizontal and vertical interactions occur simultaneously and in fact represent a single process, as it is viewed by holons in different positions in the hierarchy.

One of the great advantages of this representation over Wilber’s, in my view, is that it emphasizes the intimate relationship of individual vs. social development–that neither occurs without the other. I’m sure everyone appreciates this, but in the Wilber model it is not nearly so apparent. We have individual quadrants and social quadrants, and they are said to be related, but other than by drawing arrows between the two, the nature of the relationship is not clear. I find this particular problem even more challenging in the work of those, like Edwards, who restrict the understanding of quadrants to features or dimensions of every holon, including social as well as individual. In this type of models, individual and social holons must be represented separately–on different figures or axes, for example. While I agree that this is the correct approach to use if one is to preserve the basic four-quadrant framework, it voids the possibility of representing in any one diagram interactions between individual and social holons. In fact, Edwards’ view implies that there must not only be separate sets of axes for individual and social holons, but that there must be still another set of axes joining them. For clearly individual holons do develop into social holons, and how is this development to be portrayed if not through some kind of scale like those used to represent development of individual holons and of social holons?

A second great advantage of this model is that it acknowledges that any particular individual holon can interact simultaneously with many different kinds of social holons. In the Wilber model, every kind of individual holon is associated with a particular kind of social holon. Thus modern people are associated with society at a particular stage of development. But obviously, we are all members of many simpler societies as well–families, neighborhoods, work environments, and so on. The particular pattern of associations–the hierarchical stages on which these societies exist, and the relative strengths of their interactions with the individual–uniquely defines that individual’s development. While it would be possible to represent these relationships in the four-quadrant model as well, I have not seen this done, though Edwards has provided the necessary conceptual tools for this kind of treatment.

A third and very critical feature of my model is that it decentralizes the individual. That is, it portrays individual behavior, experience and development as part of a larger process involving groups. In the Wilber model, the individual is considered supreme, to the point where social holons are actually defined and understood in a way that does not infringe upon their members’ autonomy. This view is based not on compelling evidence or logic, but to a large extent, it often seems, because he believes that the relationship "ought" to be this way (Kofman 2000).

My model, in contrast, while defining important differences between individual and social holons, views our actions and experiences as subject to enormous social influences. I quoted Edwards (2003c) earlier on this point. I would just add that though Edwards remains committed to the view that social holons develop in a different path from that of individual holons, he clearly believes they have enough influence over their individual members to support completely my view that they are higher stages formed by associations of individual holons.12 And when he says “a collective holon is an emergent and developmental whole/part”, what in the world does he think it emerges from if not its component individual holons? And if that is the case, how can one argue that it is not on the same developmental scale?

Finally, my model incorporates all these new concepts and distinctions in its original framework. Wilber’s model, like Ptolemy’s, has constantly had to add new structures to accommodate new data and principles. The original four quadrant scaffolding did not include the inside/outside dialectic; it did not represent the forces of agency and communion, nor of transcendence and immanence; it did not imply separate developmental waves and streams; and it did not (and still does not) avoid conflation of individual and social holons with individual and social aspects of holons. All of these notions have had to be added or inserted into the original model. I have no doubt that Wilber can and will add still more features in the future, increasing further the power and scope of his model, but with every new modification, the new model looks less and less like the original four-quadrant model.

In contrast, my model, with its horizontal interactions of individual-individual and social-social holons, and its vertical interactions of individual-social holons, has been able to accommodate and account for every new term and concept that has been thrown at it. As I have discussed here, we don’t need to postulate separate individual and social quadrants, inside and outside dimensions, agentic/communal dialectics, horizontal and vertical dynamics, and developmental streams. All of them can be accounted for by holonic interactions in the single scale.

To say this is not to imply in the slightest that reality is simple in general, or linear in particular. As I said before, I have the greatest respect for the complexities of individuals and societies that theorists like Edwards are exploring. I only claim that we can represent all of this enormous variety and complexity as I have sketched out here. Given any phenomenon, we can identify, in principle if not always in practice, a set of interacting holons that can account for it.


1.This is ironic, because in an earlier article, Edwards (2002) claimed that no distinction could or should be made between individual and social holons. By arguing that they require separate sets of axes for their treatment, he has clearly drawn a major distinction between them.

2.All quotes from Goddard are from Goddard (2003).

3.Wilber (2003). While generally respecting the author’s wishes not to have a work-in-progress quoted, this quote is completely in harmony with what Wilber has written on many other occasions.

4.I won’t argue that there is a high degree of analogy between a cell/organism relationship and that between an individual and the earth, because I don’t regard the earth as a fully-evolved higher-level holon. But it might one day become one, in which case I think our relationship to it might be much like that of a cell to an organism. In any case, it ought to be noted that the very molecules of which the earth is composed are also bound firmly to it, like the cells in an organism. They go where the earth goes. Yet according to Wilber himself, the relationship of molecules to the planet is like that of people to their societies.

5.Some might protest that cells do not "choose" to die in the same way that a person might, but are rather forced into this situation by contingencies, external and internal, over which they have no real control. Frankly, I would say the same is true of humans; our choices are determined largely, if not entirely, by external factors combined with inherent mental tendencies. Without getting into an argument over free will here, though, we can say at the very least that the cell’s actions, at its level of existence, are the analog of what we call choice on our level. But in any case, this really isn’t my problem to deal with; it’s Wilber’s. He’s the one claiming that the relationship of individuals to their societies is different from that of cells to some multicellular holon. To make a claim like that presupposes that there is a basis for comparison, that there is some degree of analogy that allows to say that the relationships are different. If there in fact isn’t such an analogy, then no such assertion about differences between individuals and cells can be made in the first place.

6.Wilber (2003). Again, I am justifying quoting from this unfinished work because the views expressed are so similar to what Wilber has written on many other occasions.

7.Even those who disagree with my prediction here will presumably accept that a computer program can be created that can communicate language to some degree, even if imperfectly. For the sake of the argument that follows, this is sufficient.

8.Another problem, which I won’t discuss here, is that such a computer would seem to have an exterior without an associated interior. While the computer according to Wilber would have some interiority, associated with the physical hardware, such as silicon chips, wires, and so forth, it would not be developed to any degree remotely comparable to that of a human being. This seems to violate the principle of exteriors and interiors always being associated. Perhaps Wilber would seize on this point to argue that a zombie is in fact not a logical possibility. But it certainly appears to be logically possible, and I know of no philosophers who would contest this.

9.Wilber does claim that people of different cultures can be ranked according to their culture’s level of development. But of course, we could always use an example of two people from cultures or societies of the same development that nonetheless spoke different languages.

10.The same argument can be made with respect to what Wilber calls exteriors. That is, our behavioral repertoire also extends over several levels of existence. In fact, in Wilber’s model, there is no holon corresponding to a human being as a physical organism. Exteriors are represented by the brain and by behavior.

11.Wilber (2000b).

12.The specific examples that Edwards (2003c) provides, moreover, ought to make it abundantly clear that the individual’s relationship to society is far more like the relationship of cells to tissues (which are social holons in my model) than of cells to cell colonies (which in Wilber’s model are social holons). Cells within cell colonies behave very much as isolated cells do; in contrast, cells in tissues are subject to very great influences over most aspects of their behavior. While this control is not total, as I have noted before, it is very much of the same order as the kind of control society exerts on its members.


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