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).



A (Somewhat Biased) Comparison
of the Four Quadrant and One-Scale Models of Holarchy

Andrew P. Smith

Ken Wilber has proposed a model of holarchy. I have proposed a different model. Ken's model (Fig. 1) features four quadrants or axes, each of which represents a different view or aspect of a holon on any given level. The general idea underlying this arrangement is that every holon has several kinds of properties or relationships that can't be reduced to, or identified with, any single property. My model (Fig. 2), in contrast, has a single axis, but my contention is that this model not only contains or implies all the information present in the Wilber model, but that it has several additional strengths that the latter lacks.

In this paper, I will lay out the case for this claim. In the interest of good sportsmanship, level playing field, and all that, I will attempt to expose the weaknesses not only in the Wilber four-quadrant model, but also in my own single-scale model. Obviously, I'm not a neutral observer in this debate, but since no one else I'm aware of has stepped forward to offer a detailed critique of my model, the task falls upon me. I will begin with just this task, saving what, so I will argue, is the worst for last.

The Weaknesses of the One-Scale Model

1. It's reductionist. There is no word that will turn off most members of the new paradigm community faster and more effectively than reductionist, no accusation that will sink a newly-proposed theory or model more quickly. Most members of this community react to this word in a way, it seems to us, not terribly unlike the way other people used to react to the word communist: it's bad, it's wrong, it's anti-human, and don't ever bring it up in my presence again. End of discussion.

Because my model of holarchy is one-dimensional, in the sense of putting all forms of existence on a single scale, it appears reductionist to many people. In the Wilber model, there are separate quadrants for both societies of holons (social holons), and for the interior experience of these holons. My model, in contrast, puts some social holons, such as human and animal societies, on the same scale as everything else, while completely ignoring others recognized by Wilber, such as those formed by single-celled organisms. Even worse, the one-scale model makes no specific reference at all of interior experience, which in the Wilber model is represented in the left-hand quadrants. The result looks very much like the upper right-hand quadrant of Wilber's model. Not even half right, it would seem, but only about 30%.

I will defend later my treatment of social holons. Here I want to address the question of interior, experiential properties of holons, because it's in their failure to deal adequately with these that reductionists traditionally miss the mark. People who have not simply looked at my model, but have also carefully read my explanation of it (see my book Worlds within Worlds for a more detailed discussion of this model), should appreciate that I haven't really ignored the interior or experiential properties of holons. In my model, mental phenomena to some extent emerge from physical and biological ones. Just as cells are complex organizations of atoms and molecules, and organisms complex organizations of cells, much of what we mean when we say mind, in the one-scale model, emerges from processes in the brain, together with interactions that occur between organisms in social organizations.

This aspect of the single-scale model I believe adequately refutes the charge that it's reductionist in the hard-core sense, or what Wilber (1995) calls "gross" reductionism. That is to say, mind is not identified with lower level processes; it's not said to be the same thing as, for example, patterns of nervous activity in the brain, or patterns of interaction between ourselves and other people. Rather, mind appears as a new phenomenon, dependent on these processes, yet very unlike them. The ways in which emergence may occur are still hotly debated, but many theories advanced to explain it make it clear that it can involve relationships very different from those in which traditional scientific explanations have been understood (see, for example, Eigen and Schuster 1977; Thom 1989; Casti 1992; Kauffman 1993; Bak 1996; Capra 1996).

If this were the end of the story, my model would still be open to the charge that it's what Ken calls "subtly" reductionist. (Many other thinkers have made this distinction between two forms of reductionsism, e.g., Dawkins 1986; Weinberg 1992; Dennett 1995). That is, while mind is not identified with lower level processes, it's still viewed as being ultimately explainable in their terms--just as most scientists believe that the properties of cells are explainable in terms of molecular interactions, and those of organisms in terms of cellular interactions. For just this reason, mind can be considered the same kind of phenomenon as the latter, and placed on the same holarchical scale . The way I avoid the charge of subtle reductionism is by... well, avoiding it. In the one-scale model, a distinction is made between mind, in the sense of the functional or behavioral properties we are capable of, and consciousness, in the sense of experience or what philosophers usually call qualia. These distinctions correspond closely to what David Chalmers (1996) refers to as respectively the soft and hard problems of consciousness. In the one-scale model, the soft problems, as I just noted, are considered emergent, and thus correspond to what Wilber calls right-hand properties or holons. The hard problem, though, the existence of experience or qualia, is considered to be outside of the holarchy completely.

How can this be? Along with Wilber, I believe there is an ultimate consciousness that is not only the highest form of consciousness, but which in some sense includes every other form of existence as well. Different forms of existence experience perhaps tap (or plug into, as Ken once put it) this consciousness to different degrees, according to how high they are in the holarchy. Thus the degree of consciousness of any holon is directly related to its position in the holarchy--just as in the Wilber model, and in that developed by Sri Aurobindo (1985), one of the the first to relate the development of consciousness to the evolution of physical forms--even though nothing within the holarchy can actually account for or explain the phenomenon of consciousness itself.

Though a position like this is certainly not without its problems, I know of no compelling argument against it. (Let's face it, folks, when we start talking about the relationship of consciousness to the rest of the world, none of us has a clue.) On the one hand, the hard problem of consciousness has resisted all efforts of scientists and philosophers to solve. The burden of proof is really on those who believe that experience or qualia can be explained in terms of processes in the brain. On the other hand, the inexorable trend in the various modern sciences that study brain and mind is to provide more and more evidence that the functional aspects of mind can be explained in terms of lower level phenomena. Most philosophers believe that consciousness is always "about" something (Seager 1999), and it appears that we probably will eventually be able to explain why consciousness is about particular things, rather than about other things--why, for example, we can remember earlier events in our life, or visualize scenes that are not immediately present, or do math, and so on, and so on.

Okay. So that, briefly, is what I would say if I were put on trial on charges of being reductionist. But having said that, I now want to campaign a little to change the law I'm accused of breaking. I don't believe that it's the end of the world (or that it should even be the end of the discussion) if some proposed model is reductionist, or has some reductionist aspects to it. In the first place, almost all models of existence do have some reductionist aspects--including Wilber's four quadrant model, which is subtly reductionist, and apparently unashamedly so, within the right hand quadrant (and perhaps the left, too, as I will discuss later). We all know, or better know, that reductionism has been very successful in explaining certain phenomena, so it would be very difficult to imagine any account of "everything" in which reductionism didn't play a significant role. In other words, it's a matter of when, where and how much a model is reductionist, not whether it is or isn't.

Second, even accounts of existence that are totally reductionist (in the subtle sense) are not necessarily without value. Along with Wilber and most other members of this community, I regard a completely reductionist explanation as a flaw in any theory, but any theory will have some flaws, and being reductionist is not necessarily the sin a theory can be guilty of. There are some very reductionist explanations of existence (e.g., Daniel Dennett's, 1995) that--even though I disagree very substantially with--I regard as more nearly true and more nearly complete than the great majority of non-reductionist theories. We should keep in mind that all theories and models are just stepping stones as we try to make some progress in knowing ourselves and our world. Just because a stone is small, or weak, or slippery, or a little bit out of our way, doesn't mean it can't help us on that way. What really matters is whether it's within reach, and whether it puts us in a position from which we can advance further. I know that Ken Wilber himself understands this very well, because his theories have been developed using extensive material from people with whom he has serious disagreements (the ability to do this is surely one of the hallmarks of scholarly greatness). I just want to make sure Ken's followers also understand this.

2. It's inconsistent. While I believe the charge that my model of holarchy is reductionist is misguided, I take more seriously the criticism that it has inconsistencies. One lesson anyone should learn from trying to understand existence in holarchical terms is that any model, to the extent that it unifies our observations, is going to have some inconsistencies. We want to have a neat, simple, comprehensible view of existence, but existence is to some degree messy, complex and certainly incomprehensible.

As the proponent of this one-scale model, I'm probably blind, or insensitive to, inconsistencies that may be fairly obvious to others . (I welcome feedback on that). However, there are some that do stand out to me. Most of them relate to the way I distinguish individual from social holons. Both the one-scale model and Wilber's four-quadrant model make this distinction, but as I noted earlier, we disagree quite substantially on which holons are which. This disagreement results partly from the fact that we use different criteria to make the distinction, and partly because neither of us uses these criteria in an entirely consistent way. As I will argue later, I believe Wilber's inconsistencies are far worse than mine, but the one-scale model is not pure or innocent in this regard, either, and I hope that by offering up a confession on that score I will be taken more seriously when I turn my attention to the four-quadrant model.

I use three main criteria for distinguishing individual from social holons. Individual holons, unlike social holons: 1) can reproduce themselves; 2) can sometimes exist autonomously outside of higher -order holons; and 3) contain all the individual and social holons on the level below them in both free and associated forms. To take an example, a cell can reproduce; some cells exist outside of higher-order holons, that is, organisms; and cells are composed of atoms and all the different kinds of molecules of various degrees of size and complexity that are found in living systems. Likewise, an organism can reproduce, can sometimes live outside of social organizations, and is composed of cells and various kinds of associations of cells. So cells and organisms are both examples of individual holons. This is a point on which Ken and I, and almost everyone else who has proposed a model of holarchy, agree.

A social holon, in contrast, lacks these properties. Consider, for example, a molecule, which I classify as a social holon, but which Wilber classifies as an individual holon. A molecule can't reproduce; most molecules can't exist outside of cells; and all the lower-order holons that molecules contain are present only in associated form. That is to say, molecules, unlike cells, do not contain free atoms, but only atoms bonded together. Likewise, a tissue, which I also classify as a social holon, but which Wilber, to the best of my knowledge completely ignores, can't reproduce (as a unit), can't exist outside of an organism, and does not contain cells that are not interacting with other cells.

Criterion 3, I note in passing, is why I say that social holons don't transcend the holons below them, but transform them. When one holon transcends another holon, by my definition, it not only includes it, and manifests new properties not present inthe lower holon, but preserves the properties of the lower holon. Thus a cell preserves the properties of (some of) its component social and individual holons. All the lower stages are represented, as distinct stages. A molecule, in contrast, does not preserve the properties of (any of) its individual atoms. It is one stage, and only one stage

With this brief summary of my criteria and examples of individual holons, let's now look at the inconsistencies. The most glaring one is my classification of atoms as individual holons. This is in agreement with Wilber's model, and I believe with every other model that has been proposed. Atoms are such a fundamental unit of existence in science that it would be virtually unthinkable not to give them a similarly fundamental position in the holarchy. But because one of my central criteria for identifying a holon as an individual holon is its ability to reproduce, atoms don't entirely fit the picture. They do satisfy criterion two, as they can exist outside of cells and molecules, while their degree of satisfaction of criterion three is difficult to evaluate, as they contain far fewer different kinds of still lower-order holons than do cells and organisms. In any case, though, it would seem that reproduction is a property that emerges only with cells, and therefore is not universal or fundamental enough to serve as an indicator of individual holons throughout the holarchy.

While I regard this inconsistency as a fairly serious one, it's not fatal to the entire scheme. Because atoms are a relatively simply form of existence, situated very low in the holarchy, we would expect their properties to resemble those of higher-order holons only to a very slight degree. We really have a poor understanding of existence at this level--or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the understanding we do have is very poorly related to our understanding of higher level phenomena. So we might expect it to be particularly difficult to design criteria that would apply as well to this level as they do to higher levels.

In any case, reproduction is such a fundamental feature of existence that I believe it should be a central criterion used to classify individual holons. An obvious implication of my model is that if a new individual holon transcending our level of existence does emerge, it will have the ability to reproduce itself. This seems both reasonable and likely to me. As I have discussed in Worlds, such a higher-level holon would presumably be composed of the entire earth, and all its matter and life. It could reproduce itself by colonizing other planets.

A second, less serious inconsistency in the model is presented by molecules, which I classify as social holons. As I pointed out earlier, one of my criteria for identifying social holons is that they can't exist outside of higher-order holons. It's true that some molecules can have this kind of autonomous existence--water, carbon dioxide, molecular oxygen, for example. But these are very simple molecules, containing only a handful of atoms. As I will explain a little later, a comparison of their properties with those of their component atoms indicates that these simple molecules are barely above the level of atoms in the holarchy. Above this level of atoms, the holarchy really begins with molecules of greater complexity, like amino acids, sugars and nucleotides, and continues with still more complex molecules like proteins and nucleic acids. These molecules are almost always found only within cells and organisms. Likewise, on the next level, there are very simple associations of cells, such as Volvox and slime molds, that can exist outside of genuine organisms. These primitive social holons might be regarded as blind alleys in evolution, experiments in higher complexity that didn't get very far.

Other apparent inconsistencies in my classification, on the other hand, I believe can be fully accounted for. For example, I regard societies of humans and organisms as social holons, just as Wilber does. They fulfill the first and third criteria I listed above. Unlike social holons as I define them at lower levels, and in apparent contradiction to criterion 2, these societies do seem to exist outside of any higher-order holon. But in this case, I would say this is because the higher-order holon is still in the process of evolving. An analogous situation occurred during the evolution of lower levels of existence. Before there were cells, there were presumably complex molecules existing outside of cells. Before there were organisms, there were complex associations of cells existing outside of organisms. Only when the new level of existence fully evolves, and incorporates these social holons within a new, higher-order individual holon, do these autonomous social holons disappear.

One final charge of inconsistency that might be made against my classification is that the social holons I identify at different levels are very different from each other. One might argue, for example, that the relationship of atoms to molecules and cells to tissues is not the same as that of organisms to their societies. In the first two cases, the reasoning goes, the component individual holons are tightly associated with each other, while in the last case they have much more autonomy. I believe this view fails to take into account the different nature of interactions between individual holons (what are called hetarchical interactions) at different levels. On the physical level, atoms interact physically within molecules. On the biological level, cells interact both physically and biologically, that is, through various kinds of chemical and electrical signals. On our level of existence, the first two kinds of interactions are still present, but the most important bonds are mental--the various kinds of thoughts we share, through language and non-verbal means of communicating. These do hold us very tightly together, but in ways that appear very different from those of atoms and cells.

There is yet another factor, generally not appreciated, at work here. We are situated well above the level of atoms, molecules, cells and tissues. From our usual point of view, these holons appear to interact in a very intimate manner. When science examines them more closely, however, it finds that this interaction is not as solid and rigid as it appears. Almost all the mass of atoms is concentrated in their nuclei, which are situated relatively far apart in molecules. Interacting cells often have no direct physical contact, and even in those that do, this contact may be constantly changing in form. So the solidity and rigidity of molecules and tissues that we ordinarily see is to a large extent the result of a particular point of view we have. In the same way, I would argue, a higher form of existence, observing human societies, would find us to be very tightly associated into a single definable unit. I will discuss this very essential concept of perspective in the holarchy further later.

There are some more inconsistencies in the one-scale model of which I'm aware, but since these are not very serious, and would take some time to explain, I will pass over them. In concluding, I find that while the one-scale model does have some significant inconsistencies, relating to its classification of individual and social holons, most of these are not very serious, and none of them is fatal to the model. This is not the case, I believe, for the inconsistencies in the four-quadrant model. Before analyzing those, however, I will consider one more aspect of the model that might be viewed as a weakness of it.

3. It lacks coherence. The third type of criticism I can imagine being directed against the one-scale model is that it lacks coherence, that is, that there are aspects of the model that are not readily clear and understandable. One example is probably presented by the way I view consciousness, as being outside or beyond the holarchy, yet realizable by different holons within the holarchy. As I discussed earlier, I do plead guilty here to some extent, but my defense is basically "everybody else does it." Nobody I'm aware of has a view of the relationship of consciousness to the material world that is completely coherent. As I will discuss later, this most definitely includes Ken Wilber.

I will therefore focus here on a second possible source of puzzlement and confusion in the one-scale model. Earlier, I pointed out that mental phenomena, in the soft or functional sense, are understood to emerge from both processes in the brain and from interactions among individuals in societies. The first type of emergence is well accepted by science, if not yet very well understood. The second, however, is a very unusual and perhaps radical idea, certainly not one that most scientists accept. What I'm claiming is that many kinds of mental phenomena are not the properties of, or emergent with, individuals and their brains, but are rather the properties of societies, and emerge only with them. We experience these phenomena because we have to some extent access to the properties of the societies that we belong to. We participate in their emergent properties.

I believe the easiest way to illustrate this concept is by examining the phenomenon of participation not at our own level of existence, but at lower levels. It's my working premise that any very significant principle or concept found to apply to one level of the holarchy will be found to apply in an analogous form to every other level, or most other levels. This is certainly true for participation. For example, atoms in complex molecules like enzymes may share to some extent in the emergent properties of these molecules. An enzyme molecule has the ability to interact with a two-dimensional face, or a three-dimensional surface, of another molecule, thus catalyzing its transformation to still another molecule. No autonomous atom can interact with a molecule in this manner, but certain atoms within the enzyme--those that compose what is called the enzyme's active site-- can. Therefore, these atoms have a property no autonomous atom has, a property they realize by virtue of their membership in the enzyme molecule.

Likewise at the next level of existence. Certain cells in the brain are able to recognize certain visual forms, such as lines and edges, as shown by the observation that when such a visual form is presented to the organism, the cell's firing pattern alters (Baron 1987). Again, this is a property no autonomous cell possesses, and cells in the brain have it only by virtue of participating in the enormous multicellular network that makes up that holon. It's true, of course, that such cells don't actually see the form that they respond to, in the sense of receiving direct input from it; they respond to other neurons which have a more direct relationship to this direct input. But exactly the same point can be made about many of the things we "see" with our minds, such as events occurring in other parts of the world. We see them indirectly, through input we receive from other holons.

I contend, then, that the same kind of relationship exists between societies and their individual members. I won't claim that all mental phenomena are like this. Following most philosophers, I divide these phenomena into two classes (Seager 1999). One class consists of direct perceptions of the external world, as when we see something separate from ourselves. The other class consists of thoughts about these perceptions, as well as about all manner of other things, real or imaginary. The first type of mental phenomenon is found to some extent in almost all organisms, including those that don't live in societies, so it would be very difficult to argue that it emerged from social organization. The second kind of mental phenomenon, though, is restricted pretty much to our own species, and as Wilber himself has discussed at great length (1981, 1995), the complexity of these mental phenomena is highly correlated with the complexity of societies.

In fact, in the one scale model, both types of mentality result from interactions of holons. Direct perceptions occur when we look down in the holarchy, at holons below us: rocks, trees, tables, other animals, our body parts, for example. Thoughts occur when we look up, above ourselves, at our social organizations. This relationship illustrates very clearly that virtually any form of existence is capable of direct perception, while only those that live within social holons have thoughts. It's an implication of this model, then, that cells and even atoms, when existing in molecules or organisms, respectively, would manifest phenomena analogous to our thinking, though less complex.

Though this may sound like a radical idea, it actually is not. I am discussing right now only the soft or functional aspects of mentality, those that go on without regard to a holon's actual experience of them. It's well established that cells in the brain do "think" in this sense; that is, they can take in and process certain forms of information (Churchland and Tejnowski 1992; Koch 1998). They in fact do many of the things we do when we think, though on a more rudimentary scale. So, on a still more primitive scale, do atoms within molecules. For example, when a protein molecule changes its shape or conformation, individual atoms within it may change their physical relationships to other atoms (see Stryer 1988). While the conventional view of this process is that the bonds between these atoms have become stressed or strained, we could just as well say that the atoms have received new information from their neighbors, and that by changing their positions relative to these neighbors are in effect processing this information. So to this extent, the notion of participation as a form of mentality is really well supported by science.

Of course, the extent, if any, to which atoms and cells actually experience themselves as engaging certain forms of information processing is unknown. As I discussed earlier, the one-scale model claims that consciousness or experience, though not emerging from anywhere within the holarchy, is realized by every form of existence to some extent. To the extent that it is realized, lower forms like atoms or cells could actually experience thinking in a very rudimentary manner. This idea is of course very radical in the context of traditional science, though the Wilber model also embraces the notion that consciousness is found throughout the holarchy.

In conclusion, while the idea of participation is a little unconventional, it's based on a principle found throughout the holarchy. And when it is applied to our level of existence, it leads to the conclusion that many of our most important mental capabilities--indeed, all the complex thinking we do that distinguishes us from other animals--not only result from our membership in societies, but are properly understood as properties of these societies, not of us as individuals. This is a very important difference between my model and the Wilber model, which does not view societies as higher forms of existence. In the Wilber model, societies in fact have no localized consciousness, that is, an awareness of themselves or of the world that is associated with a single identifiable unit, analogous to the human organism. My model does not really take a position on this issue with regard to consciousness; that is, I do not claim that societies or other social holons have any experience of themselves or the world. But as just discussed, I do claim that they have mental phenomena, which indeed are much more complex and far-ranging than ours, since ours result from access to only a portion of the society's. This position, I believe, is probably consistent with Wilber's (except for the "more complex and far-ranging" part), for Wilber does claim that social holons, like individual holons, have "agency", or the property of being able to exist autonomously to some extent. Even more suggestive, he says they are "sentient".

To summarize this discussion of the weaknesses of the one-scale model, it has some inconsistencies in its classification of individual and social holons, most of which I believe are not that significant, and none of which is fatal to the entire scheme. The one-scale model certainly has a role for mental phenomena, including the interior experience of consciousness. It claims that most mental phenomena, in their soft or functional aspects, are properties not of individual human beings, but of the societies they belong to. This is an unusual idea, and to many people probably a counter-intuitive one, but I believe that it's well supported not only by our understanding of societies themselves, but by evidence from lower levels of existence, where the same kind of relationship is more clear. Finally, the one-scale model does not explain how holons experience consciousness, but neither does any other model or theory.

This discussion has not exhausted all the possible criticisms I can imagine being directed against the one-scale model. Most especially, I still not have completely accounted for the very substantial differences in the way Wilber and I identify social holons. Though I have discussed my criteria for distinguishing them from social holons, I have not addressed the fact that he identifies many social holons that are apparently ignored in my model. This issue will become front and center, however, as we now turn to look the weaknesses of the four-quadrant model.

The Weaknesses of the Four-Quadrant Model

1. It's inconsistent. Like my model, the Wilber model also has inconsistencies, and the most significant of these,too, stem from its classification of individual and social holons. I believe, though, that Wilber's inconsistencies here are far more serious and damaging to his model than those pointed out in the preceding section are for the one-scale model.

Consider first social holons. Wilber defines them with the following statement:

Social holons emerge when individual holons commune; they also have a defining pattern (agency or regime), but they do not have a subjective consciousness; instead, they have distributed or intersubjective consciousness.1

He then goes on to provide the following examples: "galaxies, planets, crystals, ecosystems, families, tribes, communities...."

In a previous article, The Spectrum of Holons, I pointed out that Wilber's definition of social holons (as presented by his strong supporter Fred Kofman) can be applied as well to what he calls individual holons. Thus molecules, cells and organisms are also composed of individual holons that commune, in a defining pattern. Whether any holons other than ourselves and presumably some higher organisms can be said to have consciousness, on the other hand, is highly speculative. Though I believe, along with Wilber, that many lower forms of existence have some kind of consciousness, obviously there is no way to verify this in most cases. Thus the nature of this consciousness is clearly inappropriate as a rigorous criterion for classifying holons.

In conclusion, then, I believe that the criteria that Wilber and Kofman provide for distinguishing individual and social holons are useless. Some of these criteria either fail to make the distinction at all--as shown by the fact that they apply to some of their listed examples of individual holons ("molecules, cells, organisms") as aptly as they do to social holons; others can't be applied at all. Nevertheless, by using them, Wilber has somehow managed to come up with a list of both individual holons and of social holons. He obviously believes that members of each group share some important properties with each other, properties not shared by members of the other group. But do they?

Consider the examples of social holons Wilber provides. Are these different holons really that similar in their organization? I say emphatically no, for one major reason. Some of them--galaxies, planets, and crystals--are not higher in the holarchy than their individual component holons, while others-- ecosystems, families, tribes, communities--are. This point really goes to the heart of a major difference between my model and Wilber's, because it's precisely through my claim that societies (and other social holons) are higher than individuals that I justify placing them on the same scale as the latter, thereby immediately reducing the four quadrant model to two. This debate, however, revolves around an an even more fundamental issue: how do we define higher, that is, decide which holons are higher than others? Clearly, this is the first issue that must be resolved before we can create any model of holarchy. If, as I contend, Wilber has failed to deal with it in a consistent manner, his model has to be very seriously flawed.

To illustrate this inconsistency, I will apply to his four-quadrant model two criteria that are commonly used to make this determination, that is, to decide if one holon is higher than another. The first criterion has been used by virtually everyone who has ever discussed the concept of holarchy; indeed, the concept is so fundamental we could say that it preceded that of holarchy itself, that the very idea of holarchy was developed specifically to address this property or relationship of certain forms of existence. The second criterion is one that Ken apparently prefers. As we shall see, either leads to the same conclusion.

The first criterion is simply emergence. We say that one holon is higher than another when it manifests new, so-called emergent properties that its component holons don't exhibit. By this rule, molecules are higher than their component atoms, because they have properties that the atoms don't have. For example, water has the property of liquidity at room temperature, which its component hydrogen and oxygen atoms don't have. (As I will discuss a little later, this is really a very poor example of emergence, but it's one that is very commonly used, and will do for now). Cells are higher than molecules, because they have properties that molecules don't have, and organisms are higher than cells.

If we continue applying this rule, we can generate most of the levels of existence in the Wilber model (upper right-hand side). However, after organisms, we have a problem, more specifically, an inconsistency. According to the Wilber model, societies of organisms are not higher than organisms. For this reason, he places such societies in a different (lower) quadrant, distinguishing them from individual organisms, yet at the same time emphasizing that they are no higher. But by the rule of emergence, societies surely are higher than organisms. This is so for almost all animal societies, but is especially clear with human societies. These societies have properties not manifested by any single member.

To me, this point is so obvious that it's a little embarrassing to have to elaborate on it. But since Wilber, and all his supporters, have put themselves in the position of denying it, I will humor them by providing a kindergarten-level example. Consider one of the large buildings in downtown San Francisco, not so far from where I live. This building is a product of society, not of individual human beings. Even forgetting the complex design of the building, which took many years and many interactions of many individuals to come up with, the simple process of constructing the building, given the design, is one that no individual could execute. When we then do consider more complex social products, beginning with language, and moving on to areas like science and technology (all of which go into creating that building) we have moved so far beyond the capabilities of any single individual that I am positively amazed that anyone can possibly maintain, with a straight face, that societies are not higher than individuals.

Notice also that the criterion of emergence very clearly distinguishes the two groups of holons that we created from Wilber's list of examples of social holons. Ecosystems, families and tribes all exhibit, to varying degrees, properties not found in their individual components. In contrast, galaxies, planets and crystals generally do not. Except for the trivial property of greater mass, a crystal, for example, has no properties not found in its component atoms (or at least a very small piece containing just a few such atoms).

In conclusion, by the virtually universal criterion of emergence, human societies are clearly higher than their individual members. Before presenting Wilber's own criterion for distinguishing higher and lower, however, and making a similar analysis using it, I want to emphasize that the criterion of emergence is not really so simple as the foregoing discussion (and that of most other writers) implies. Like any other definition, it can be misunderstood and misapplied. I will give two examples, both of which are relevant to a comparison of my model with Wilber's.

First, consider again the relationship of molecules to atoms. As long as we are comparing molecules to the atoms within them, this rule holds. For example, water has properties, such as liquidity at room temperature, that oxygen and nitrogen don't have. But some atoms, such as mercury, do have liquidity, so this property is not really an emergent one at the level of molecules like water. It's for just this reason that in my book Worlds I identify as the next stage of existence above atoms what I call small molecules, such as amino acids, distinguishing them from what I call simple molecules like water. An amino acid has properties that no single atom has, such as the ability to carry two physically separated ionic charges (a property essential to its ability to act as a buffer, stabilizing the pH of a liquid environment, and making all the complex metabolic processes that occur within cells possible). Likewise, I identify as the next stage polymers such as peptides and nucleic acids, because they have properties that are not only not exhibited by their component small molecules, but not exhibited by any small molecules. I continue applying this rule, and generate a series of stages of molecular organization, all found within cells.

All of these distinctions are missed by the Wilber model, which simply defines molecules as one level of existence and cells as the next, glossing over all the different kinds of holons between cells and the simplest molecules. Thus there is no reference in the Wilber model to holons like enzymes, DNA and mitochondria. This is not simply an error of omission, a lack of detail. By either ignoring these holons, or lumping them all together (it's not at all clear to me what Wilber is doing here), Ken defines a level-level relationship that he can't maintain throughout the holarchy. This is a point I will elaborate on later.

A second way in which emergence can be misunderstood is illustrated by metal alloys. When copper and tin are mixed together, the result is bronze, a metal that has properties different from either of its components. Is this an emergent property? No, because while it's true that the property is new, it basically results from an additive relationship. The unique properties of bronze can be understood as an essentially linear combination or average of those of copper and tin. This contrasts with the properties of water, which don't result from a linear or additive combination of those of hydrogen or oxygen.

This, at least, is the way any introductory textbook in chemistry would distinguish the two examples of new properties. But a deeper examination of this question reveals it isn't quite so simple as that. It's true that the properties of water, as we normally experience it, are very different from those of hydrogen or oxygen. But this hardly means that these properties emerge through some kind of magic. At the atomic/molecular level, the way in which water's properties result from the combination of hydrogen and oxygen is quite apparent. Speaking very loosely, we could say that by giving up some of its autonomy or agency to hydrogen, oxygen becomes capable of still further interactions with other hydrogen molecules. These interactions are what hold water together, making it a liquid at room temperature rather than a gas. Indeed, we could say that, viewed from this level, there is nothing emergent about water molecules at all. Their properties do result from a rather simple combination of those of hydrogen and oxygen.

This example leads us to a very important principle that I emphasize in Worlds: how we view any phenomenon depends on our relationship to it in the holarchy. Because we are well above the level of simple molecules, we see them as manifesting properties very different from those of their component atoms. When we take the point of view of other molecules, though, we see that these properties are not really that different at all. This point relates to our own level. As I have suggested elsewhere, we view our interactions with other people as very different from the way a higher level of existence would observe them. Bluntly put, there may be all kinds of social properties that are emergent from the point of view of a higher level of existence, but which are not emergent from our point of view. (Possibly, this is part of the reason why the emergent nature of these properties is not evident to Wilber.)

Now let's move on to Wilber's own preferred criterion for deciding the question of higher and lower. According to him, there is an asymmetric relationship between a higher level and a lower level. The existence of the lower is necessary for the existence of the higher, but the reverse is not true. He states this criterion a little imprecisely, however, (causing some confusion among some participants in one of his online forums), so I have added a few words to make what is surely the intended meaning a little clearer:

Destroy any type of holon [i.e., all holons on any level] and you will destroy all of the holons above it and none of the holons [more precisely, not all of the holons on any level] below it.2

Using this criterion, we can again generate most of the levels of the holarchy: atoms, molecules, cells, organisms. Thus if we could eliminate all atoms, there would be no molecules, but if we eliminated all molecules, there still would be some atoms. Likewise, if we eliminated all molecules, there would be no cells, but not the reverse. And so on. But again, when we come to societies, there is an inconsistency. It seems clear that if we eliminate all organisms, we will eliminate all societies. But the converse is not true; eliminating all societies will not eliminate all organisms. Therefore, by the criterion of asymmetry, societies are also found to be higher than organisms, just as the latter are above cells, which are above molecules and atoms. So by Wilber's own definition, societies are higher than humans.

How, then, could he possibly maintain otherwise? How can he insist that societies be represented in another quadrant, at the same level as organisms? If we look more closely at his model, we see that it actually depicts several different kinds of societies, corresponding to several different kinds of human beings. Modern human beings (at least those most evolved) are defined as those with a certain kind of brain structure, and they exist in a certain kind of society, characterized by the use of reason. However, earlier members of our species, possessing a different kind of brain structure, lived in different kinds of societies, such as the magic and mythic.

Given this kind of relationship, Wilber could claim (and presumably does, though if he has done so in print, he has done a good job of burying it in some footnote) that there is a perfectly symmetric relationship between humans and their societies. If we eliminate all modern humans, we eliminate all modern societies. But if we eliminate all modern societies, we eliminate all modern humans, because by definition, any humans who don't live in such societies aren't modern. And the same with humans at any of the other stages in our history that Wilber has defined. Using this logic, then, Wilber can deduce that by his criterion, human societies are no higher than their human members.

There is still an inconsistency, though. To be consistent, Wilber must apply the same logic to other levels of existence. I pointed out earlier that if all cells are eliminated, all organisms are eliminated, but that the reverse is not true. Thus Wilber argues that organisms are higher than cells. But we can, and to be consistent we must, apply the same logic everywhere. So we must acknowledge that the cells that constitute an organism are not really the same kind of cells that exist independently of organisms. The two kinds of cells have different properties. Indeed, the two kinds of cells--those that exist within organisms and those that don't--are arguably much more different from each other than are human beings who live in modern societies and our earliest ancestors. We are genetically identical to our earliest ancestors, having the same number of chromosomes and the same genes as they did. In contrast, the cells found in organisms are genetically distinct from those found outside of organisms; indeed, the cells in one species of organism are of course genetically distinct from those in another organism.

So by the consistent application of the logic that permits Wilber to claim that societies are no higher than organisms, we are forced to the conclusion that organisms are no higher than cells. For if we eliminate all organisms, we eliminate all cells of the kind that are found in organisms, just as, if we eliminate all societies, we eliminate all humans of the kind found in those societies. Moreover, we can extend this logic down to other levels as well. Thus if we eliminate all molecules, we eliminate all atoms of the kind found in molecules. For just as the cells found in organisms are distinguishable from those not, so are the atoms found in molecules distinct from those that are not. The former are reactive, capable of forming chemical bonds with other atoms. The latter are inert, not forming molecules.

The reader should now be able to see where the logic that permits Wilber to claim societies are no higher than organisms leads us. It forces us to conclude that no level of the holarchy is higher than any other level. For if the individual holons on one level that compose holons on a higher level (atoms within molecules; molecules with cells; cells within organisms) can always be defined as different from those individual holons on the same level that are not found in a higher level holon (autonomously existing atoms, molecules, and cells), then the criterion of asymmetry becomes useless. By definition, there never is an asymmetric relationship between any group of individual holons and the individual holons themselves.

In conclusion, then, Wilber's treatment of social holons--both his definition of them and his classification of them--is inconsistent. However one chooses to define higher vs. lower, he does not apply the definition consistently to all levels of existence. Because he fails to do so, he fails to understand that societies must be considered higher than their individual members. To reiterate, they are so by the criterion of emergence, which virtually everyone who has ever written about holarchy uses. But they are also so by Wilber's own criterion of asymmetry, unless a symmetric relationship between societies and their members is defined a priori. But if this is done, this definition must be applied consistently to other levels, in which case the criterion of asymmetry applies nowhere. To use the criterion successfully, it must be defined out of existence.

I might add that there is still another reason, besides these rigorously logical arguments, for rejecting Wilber's claim that societies are no higher than their individual members. Wilber uses this claim, as we have seen earlier, to justify creating separate quadrants for the social aspects of holons. This move implies that all individual holons do in fact have social aspects, just as he claims that they all have interior aspects. But this claim is obviously false. There are numerous examples in nature of organisms that don't live in societies, that have virtually no social organization whatsoever. Wilber would thus be forced to concede that the concept of social aspects does not apply throughout the holarchy. In contrast, my own-scale model can handle perfectly well asocial organisms. They simple exist on the bottom of their level of existence, not having organized into higher stages.

This last point also emphasizes the conclusion, noted earlier, that this inconsistency in defining higher and lower, social and individual, is not a little matter. It provides the rationale for half of Wilber's four-quadrant model, as two of the four quadrants represent social holons. Remove this inconsistency, and it's no longer necessary to have these two quadrants. Societies can be placed on the same scale as individual holons, simply higher than the ones that compose them.

There are other ramifications of Wilber's central inconsistency as well. I noted earlier that some of the social holons he lists do not have emergent properties; these include galaxies, planets and crystals (in the case of planets and galaxies, however, this is not totally true, since our planet in our galaxy does have emergent properties). Therefore, by the most commonly used criterion of higher vs. lower, these forms of existence are not higher than their component individual holons (atoms or molecules). The first two (but not the last, crystals, still another inconsistency) also are not higher by the criterion of asymmetry. Eliminate all galaxies, for example, and all atoms are eliminated. Since these kinds of existence are conflated with societies, however, Wilber not only misunderstands the relationship of societies to their members, but also is led to an unfortunate definition of still another term he uses, heaps.

What exactly are heaps? Wilber defines them in this way:

A heap is just a random pile. A pile of sand, a water puddle, a bunch of dead leaves--these are heaps. They have no interior consciousness...and they have no enduring, defining pattern.

Heap is a term that, as far as I know, Wilber created, so he is certainly allowed to define it in any manner he wants. But the bottom line, again, is consistency. As should be clear from the previous discussion, when we consider groups or collections of individual holons, there are fundamentally two different types that we must distinguish from each other: those collections that have no emergent properties, and those that do. Heaps clearly belong to the first class, but so do galaxies, planets and crystals. By calling the latter social holons, Wilber can distinguish them from heaps. But in that case, societies must be defined as something else again, because they simply do not fit the definition of social holons he uses. They must be either individual holons, which they surely are not, or some new creature, further complicating the model.

The one-scale model provides a simpler, and completely consistent, alternative. Heaps, I contend, are most reasonably defined as groups of individual holons (or social holons) that have no emergent properties. Thus almost all planets are heaps, as are crystals, and as are piles of rocks, puddles, and so on. As discussed in my paper The Spectrum of Holons, this definition also allows us to identify heaps of cells, and heaps of organisms, making the concept a universal one, applying throughout the holarchy. Then social holons are collections of individual holons that do have emergent properties. Individual holons are also collections of individual holons that have emergent properties, but can be distinguished from social holons by other criteria, which I have discussed above.

In concluding this section, I will point out yet another consequence of this one glaring inconsistency in the Wilber model: it leads to very different relationships between different levels of existence. Surely in any genuine holarchy, we would expect the relationship of one level of existence to that directly below it to be much like that of any other level to the level below it. Thus the relationship of organisms to cells is much like the relationship of cells to atoms. The similarities of the two relationships include: 1) in both cases, the higher level holon is composed of a very large number of lower level holons; 2) in both cases, this composition exists in several holarchical forms (i.e., the atoms within cells are organized into molecules of various sizes and degrees of complexity, and the cells within organisms are organized into tissues and organs of various sizes and degrees of complexity; and 3) in both cases, the higher level exists on a longer time scale (organisms live for years, while most of their cells live for days or weeks, and molecules exist for hours or days. It's true that atoms don't fit this criterion, an inconsistency related to another one discussed earlier. However, events at the atomic level occur much more rapidly than those involving entire molecules, which in turn are faster than those in cells, which are faster than those in organisms). The single scale model of holarchy demonstrates all these analogies, and is capable of extending them upwards still further, to societies of organisms. Thus the reader can easily confirm that the relationship between modern human societies and their individual members exhibits all three of the properties just listed.

In contrast, the Wilber model exhibits levels of existence which have very different relationships to their adjacent levels. The relationship of cells to molecules is not like the relationship of organisms to cells, unless one defines molecules as only the simplest kind, composed of just a few kinds of atoms. If one does not, then a cell contains many kinds of molecules, of vastly different sizes, shapes and complexities, while the organism contains cells that have many fundamental features in common, beginning with their genome. But if one does define molecules as just the simplest kind, then it's clear that the relationship of these molecules to atoms is very different from the relationship of cells to molecules. This goes back to the distinction, made earlier, between transcendence and transformation. In my model, different social holons transform the properties of their individual holons. But only a new, higher level individual holon transcends the properties of both the social and individual holons that it contains.

However, these discrepancies, significant though they are, are small time compared to those revealed by a comparison involving still other pairs of adjacent levels. The Wilber model defines several of the higher levels as consisting of several different kinds of human beings--modern humans, for example, constitute one level, while our ancestors who existed a few thousand years ago compose another. It's patently obvious that the relationship between these two kinds of human beings is vastly different from that between cells and molecules. It's also quite different from the relationship between modern human beings and the next highest level of existence, occupied by humans who have transcended their minds completely. Such inconsistencies have been noted by others (Goddard 1997).

2. Lack of unity. I pointed out earlier that my model may appear reductionist, because it represents all forms of existence on a single axis or scale. Ken Wilber is very much against reductionism, and his model takes great pains to avoid even the appearance of being reductionist by the use of four scales, or quadrants. (Yet his model is apparently subtly reductionist, a point I will return to later). These four quadrants are the result of two fundamental distinctions Wilber makes among holons, or more precisely, among ways to view holons. The first distinction is between the exterior form of the holon and its interior experience, represented in the right vs. left halves of the model. The second distinction is that between individual vs. social holons, represented in the upper vs. lower halves of the model. Thus the four quadrants represent individual exterior and interior, and social exterior and interior.

Simply by dividing everything up in four ways in this manner, Wilber's model has the appearance of being less unified than the one-scale model. We could say that if the pre-eminent danger of a one scale model is reductionism, that of a multi-scale model is pluralism. Like reductionism, pluralism isn't all bad, but also like reductionism, it's an incomplete view of reality. I believe, and I think most other scientists and theorists share this view, that the goal of any model or theory should be to unify our understanding of phenomena, by demonstrating that they all arise from the operation of a relatively few laws or principles.

The fact that Wilber's model is pluralistic, with a four-fold structure, doesn't necessarily mean that it lacks such unity, just as the fact that my model is unified doesn't mean that it's necessarily reductionist. The key issue here is whether there are clear, consistent relationships between the different quadrants. I have already pointed out, however, in the previous section, that there are some glaring inconsistencies in the model. I now will extend this analysis further, and argue that both these and other problems prevent the four-quadrant model from presenting a unified view of reality.

First, let's look a little more closely at how Wilber defines his quadrants. I said a moment ago that they are supposed to represent not really different holons, but different views, or aspects, of the same holons. This seems quite clear with respect to the exterior vs. interior distinction. I can say that as a human being, I have an exterior aspect, represented by my body and brain, and an interior aspect, represented by my experience of the world. But the relationship of the other two halves of the model, individual vs. social, is not like that at all. Do I have a social aspect? Well, in the sense that I interact with other people, yes. But can't that social aspect can be represented very nicely by the two quadrants we already have--that is, aren't all my social aspects just ways of thinking and behaving that are reflected in my interior or exterior individual aspects?

Wilber, I think, would say that this is reductionist thinking, that my social aspects all involve interactions of some kinds with other people, and can't be reduced to my behavior or my experiences alone. They also involve the behavior and experiences of other people with whom I'm interacting. True. But they don't involve the behavior and experiences of everyone else in the society. Surely we can't claim that an entire social holon, consisting of a very large number of people, is an aspect of any one individual, in the same way that that person's experience of the world is an aspect of him. Or to put it another way, we can't imagine any holon that from one point of view, is an individual, and from another point of view is a society. At least Andy Smith can't!

I believe, in fact, that Wilber has things (almost) backwards here, resulting, again, from his stubborn insistence that societies are not higher in the holarchy than their individual members. It isn't that societies are one aspect of holons on our level of existence, that we exist as both individuals and societies; rather, we individual holons are one aspect of societies. In the one-scale model, the relationship of individual holons to their societies is represented by the concept of participation. Social holons, as I discussed earlier, have emergent properties, ones not found in their individual members. But we can to some extent participate in these properties. For example, while no one individual can construct a modern building, at least not in any reasonable length of time, one individual can contribute to such a project in ways that our ancestors could not. The reason this is possible is that modern societies have properties that earlier ones did not have, and as members of these societies, we have some access to these properties. Thus societies have created technology, and we individuals can have access to that technology.

The individual vs. social distinction that Wilber makes raises further problems when we add it to the exterior vs. interior distinction. The exterior social aspect seems fairly clear; it's the groups of individual exteriors in a society. But what is the interior aspect of a society? According to Wilber, social holons don't have a localized or group consciousness; their consciousness is only that of their individual members. That being so, why do we need a social interior at all? What in the world is is it? Following the argument of the preceding two paragraphs, Wilber could claim again that we can't reduce consciousness to any one individual; it involves the interaction of two or more individuals. But at this point, it seems to me, we are getting very close in fact to some kind of group consciousness. Either we can reduce (i.e., localize) consciousness to separate individuals, or we are saying that it emerges from the interactions of several individuals, and properly speaking, belongs to no one individual alone. And on top of all that, we still have the problem, again, of getting from these small groups of interacting individuals to an entire society. Even if the latter has some kind of consciousness resulting from multiple interactions of groups of individuals, it surely can't be the aspect of any one individual holon.

To straighten out this mess, I think, we have to make a different kind of distinction, one that is in the one-scale model. As I discussed earlier, we have to distinguish between the soft and hard problems of consciousness. The soft problems are those related to the functional properties of mind, and in principle might eventually be shown to be emergent from processes in the brain, just as cells are emergent from atoms and molecules, and organisms from cells. Any mental phenomenon--thinking, learning, memory, perception, the use of language, and so forth--has a soft aspect to it. The hard problem, in contrast, is to explain the origin of qualia or experience--what it is like to think, perceive, and so forth--and seems resistant to such an explanation. In the Wilber model, this distinction, as far as I can tell, is not made. Thus he says, for example, that language is a left-hand or interior property. To treat language, and other mental phenomena, in this way is to lump soft and hard problems together on the left or interior side. One consequence of this, of course, is that it removes a great deal of phenomena from a domain where they might be explained by studies of the brain. But what I want to focus on here is how the failure to make this distinction prevents us from an understanding of social interiors .

If we do make this distinction, then the argument I used above for exterior properties of societies can also be applied to interior ones. That is, if the soft properties of consciousness are put on the one scale model, along with exterior forms, then we can understand mental phenomena as just further properties of societies which individuals participate in. As I discussed earlier, we may manifest these properties in two ways--as either perceptions of an exterior world or thinking in an interior world--but in either case the phenomena are interior in the sense that Wilber uses the term. This arrangement does not explain the actual experience or consciousness of mental phenomena, but as I also noted earlier, consciousness in the one-scale model is treated as a phenomenon outside the holarachy, which every holon realizes to a degree according to its position within the holarchy.

The final point I want to make in this discussion of unity is not so much a weakness of the Wilber model as a strength, present in the one-scale model, which the Wilber model lacks. This is the ability to view all the processes of life as different manifestations of a single process. Life scientists commonly identify a number of processes that are characteristic of all living things. As I discuss in Worlds, this list can be boiled down to four: assimilation, the intake and incorporation of nutrients; communication, the transfer of information from one form of life to another; adaptation, the adjustment of a form of life to external conditions; and reproduction, the creation of a new but essentially identical form of life. The first three of these processes, I argue, are exhibited by all holons (individual and social) at all levels of existence we know about, while the last, as discussed earlier, is a property only of individual holons.

At any level of existence, these properties of holons can be defined in terms of their interactions with other holons. Assimilation is an interaction of a holon with another holon that is below it in the holarchy, that is, on a lower level (or on a lower stage within the same level). Thus an atom assimilates an electron; a cell assimilates a molecule; an organism assimilates tissue of a plant or another organism. Communication is an interaction between two holons on the same level: atoms (through chemical bonding), cells (through physical, chemical or electrical interactions) and organisms (gesture, displays, language) can all communicate with each other. Adaptation is an interaction between a holon at one level and a higher-order holon. Atoms adapt to molecules they exist in, cells to tissues they participate in, organisms to societies and other multi-holonic organizations (e.g., ecosystems).

In this scheme of things, reproduction is a special property. Unlike the other three, it's not characteristic of all holons, but only of certain ones on each level. But where reproduction does occur, it's a process involving all three of the other processes simultaneously. I won't pursue the argument in detail here (see Worlds), but simply note that whenever a holon reproduces, it assimilates lower holons, it communicates with other holons of its kind, and it adapts to a larger environment. So one definition of reproduction is that it's a process in which assimilation, communication and adaptation all occur simultaneously in a holon.

Beginning with this conclusion, one can proceed through three steps, each of which achieves a unification of our understanding. I have discussed these steps in detail elsewhere (A One Scale Model of Holarchy. Its Application to Four-Strand Theories of Knowledge; Illusions of Reality), and will only summarize them here. First, these four universal properties of life can be shown to correspond closely to four strands of knowledge acquisition (Edwards 2000). These four strands consist of observation, injunction, interpretation and replication, and they very closely correlate with, respectively, assimilation, communication, adaptation and reproduction. By means of this step, then, the acquisition of knowledge can be shown to be a universal process in the holarchy, one that occurs on all levels, and involves certain types of interholonic interactions.

The second step is to show that these four processes can themselves be understood as different manifestations of one process. The key to making this conceptual move is to realize that every type of interaction in the holarchy can be viewed from multiple perspectives. For example, when an organism assimilates nutrients, the process is ordinarily viewed from the point of view of the organism. From the point of view of the nutrients, however, the process is one of adaptation. From still another point of view, one taken by holons within the organism involved in the assimilation, the process may be one of communication. I have argued that any process can therefore be understood as one of assimilation, communication or adaptation. But since I have also shown that reproduction is a process involving all three of these processes, it becomes apparent that every process in the holarchy is a form of reproduction.

Finally, I argue that reproduction is a key event in all evolutionary processes. In Darwinism, reproduction is the event that enables genetic mutations that enhance the ability of organisms to survive (or more precisely, to reproduce!) to spread through a population. In cultural evolution, reproduction, though carried out in a different manner, is the way that memes establish themselves in a population. In this way, every process in the holarchy is seen to be a process of evolution. So the processes of life are unified with those of knowledge acquisition, reproduction and evolution.

This argument can to some extent be applied in the framework of the four-quadrant Wilber model, but because this model does not recognize that societies are higher than humans, it can't extend it to our own level of existence. Thus a very critical and I believe profound unification of our understanding of certain processes depends on viewing social holons as higher than individual holons. And to come back to the beginning of this section,it all boils down to having precise criteria to distinguish higher from lower, and applying them consistently.

3. It's reductionist! Ken Wilber's writings have received a great deal of criticism--as is the due of anyone who has been so influential in the thinking of so many other people--but I don't think anyone has ever accused him of being reductionist.(just about everything else). But his four quadrant model is reductionist, by his own definiton, and that is not necessarily a weakness of it. But it may be.

Let me explain. I noted earlier that my one-scale model looks a lot like the upper right hand quadrant of the Wilber model, with many of the same holons present in the same ranking of higher vs. lower. I conceded that , in the absence of any representation of consciousness, this model exhibited what Ken calls subtle reductionism. I claimed, however, that I could evade this charge by viewing consciousness as outside theholarchy, a something that is somehow realized by holons within this holarchy.

Wilber's model, however, makes no such claim about consciousness. Thus it seems to me that his right-hand quadrant is reductionist in the subtle sense. That is, the exterior forms of organisms emerge from the interactions of cells, which emerge from the interactions of molecules, which emerge from the interactions of atoms. I'm fairly sure Wilber would agree with this interpretation, and find nothing problematical about it. On the one hand, this interpretation is just the point any scientist would make, and Ken always strives to be consistent with science, even as he moves beyond it. On the other hand, by postulating his interior qualities, he has avoided the trap of claiming that everything can be reduced to organisms, to cells, to molecules, to atoms.

But wait a minute. If the upper right hand quadrant is subtly reductionist, isn't the lower right also? That is, if organisms emerge from cells which emerge from molecules, can't we say the same thing about societies of organisms--that they emerge from societies of cells, which emerge from societies of molecules,which emerge from societies of atoms? This seems to be Wilber's intended meaning:

a social holon does not transcend and include individual holons; rather, a social holon transcends and includes the previous social holons in its own line of development.

But is this really true? This would be to say that planets emerge from galaxies, populations of bacteria emerge from planets, and human and animal societies from populations of one-celled organisms. The order of appearance is correct, but the relationships are not exactly the same as those between the individual holons. The term "emergence" is being used in a very different sense here. In fact, I would say that if this really is the intended implication of the Wilber model--to say that higher societies emerge from lower as higher individual holons emerge from lower, the model is incoherent. On the other hand, if this is not Wilber's intended meaning, then there is a significant disconnect, or lack of parallel relationship, between the individual and social quadrants. The relationships between higher and lower levels in the two quadrants is different.

How about the left-hand, interior quadrants? From the above quote, I would assume that Wilber also believes that the various levels of interior holons, or aspects of holons, also transcend each other. But if this is the case, then this quadrant is also guilty of subtle reductionism. The consciousness of modern humans emerges from that of earlier humans, which in turn emerges from still lower forms of life. If we follow this idea to its logical conclusion, then consciousness begins with very lower forms of life, and simply emerges through their combinations into more complex forms. This idea, known as panpsychism, is coming back into favor among some modern philosophers, but it does have its problems (Seager 1999). I won't discuss here those problems that most philosophers would bring up, but I do want to point out that a strict view of panpsychism seems to me to be incompatible with Wilber's view that consciousness begins with the ultimate, or highest form.

In all of his writings, beginning with his very earliest, he has made it clear that he believes the highest level (which is not just a level) preceded the rest of of existence. In order to remain consistent with this view, as I'm sure he would want to, he must somehow relate the existence of this higher consciousness to the very low forms that, according to his four-quadrant model, preceded us in evolution. I believe the only way to do this is by some scheme in which this consciousness is realized to various degrees by different forms of existence, according to their position in the holarchy--in other words, by an appeal to the same idea underlying the treatment of consciousness in the one-scale model. But as soon as Wilber does this, he opens himself up to the question of why he has not made a distinction between soft and hard forms of consciousness. That is, if consciousness is in some sense outside of the holarchy, and preceded all holons at every level of existence, then we must also conclude that either a) all forms of mentality, including the highest, were also present in the beginning; or b) that they weren't, and are therefore logically distinct from consciousness. But this distinction is not made in his model.

So while Wilber's four-quadrants were created specifically to avoid the trap of reductionism, it seems to me that each quadrant, viewed separately, is reductionist in the subtle sense. While I see nothing objectionable about this, to avoid the charge that the model as a whole is reductionist, I believe Wilber must make a distinction between consciousness in the hard sense and that in the soft or functional sense. The alternative is to postulate that everything was present in the beginning, before evolution began. Not just everything in a potential or implicate sense, but in an explicate sense. This idea, too, surely is incoherent.


Both Wilber's four-quadrant model and my one-scale model have flaws, including inconsistencies and postulates that may to some degree be incoherent. I believe, however, that the flaws in the Wilber model are far more serious. These include inconsistencies in how social holons are defined, and in the relationships of different levels as well as different quadrants to each others; a lack of unifying principles; and even, ironically, a subtle form of reductionism present or implied in each quadrant. All of these flaws reflect, ultimately, a confusion over the most fundamental issue confronting any model of holarchy: how we define the relationship of higher vs. lower.

I want to close on a positive note, so I emphasize that despite the substantial differences between the two models, they are in agreement on a number of key points. These include the relative arrangement of all of the major holons except human and animal societies; the role of evolution in creating these levels, and in continuing to create new, higher ones; and the notion that different levels are distinguished by both their degree of structural complexity and their degree of consciousness. These similarities form a basis for further dialogue, one that should include other critics of the four-quadrant model (e.g., Grof 1993; Goddard 1997, 2000), and since no model is fully complete or coherent, we should look forward to further development of the concept of holarchy.


1. Except where otherwise noted, quotes are from the online article, "On Critics, Integral Institute, My Recent Writing, and Other Matters of Little Consequence", part II of an interview with Shambhala. This is available at their Website.

2. Wilber (1995), p. 61.


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