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).



Naturally It Is. Absolutely It Is Not

A Reply to Desilet

Andrew P. Smith

C.P. Snow, among others, pointed out that the three laws of thermodynamics[1] can be summarized as:

  1. You can't win (conservation of energy)
  2. You can't break even (entropy always increases)
  3. You can't opt out of the game (zero entropy is unattainable)

At the end of his long, revealing comparison of Ken Wilber and Jacques Derrida [Derrida and Wilber at the Crossroads of Metaphysics], Gregory Desilet summarizes what might be called Derrida's three laws of postmodernism:

  1. You can't have a genuinely transcendent experience
  2. Even if you could have such an experience, you couldn't prove that you did
  3. Even if you could have such an experience, and could prove that you did, you couldn't communicate it to anyone else.
I will suggest that this alternative view of transcendence avoids Derrida's objections...

Desilet's main purpose, he assures us, is not to endorse Derrida's view, but just to demonstrate that Wilber has misinterpreted Derrida when he claims that the postmodernist conceded “to the necessity for an absolute ground, some manner of absolute transcendence in systems of meaning”. A careful reading (actually a cursory reading) of what Derrida actually said does not confirm this at all, so Wilber is not entitled to incorporate Derrida's view as an “orienting generalization” in support of his system:

This postmodern deconstructive challenge to Wilber need not be seen as an attempt to demolish integral philosophy or spirituality. Instead, the reason for illuminating the contrasts between Derrida and Wilber will be to demonstrate that the deconstructive approach cannot be, as Wilber would have it, appropriated into the integral project as Wilber understands and practices it.

But Desilet does not just point out the inconsistency between Derrida's view and Wilber's. He pretty clearly endorses Derrida's view of transcendence, and though he adds,

Whether this incompatibility requires revisions of integral foundations to the point where the notion of "integral" no longer seems appropriate is a question remaining to be worked out in spiritual communities relevant to the question.

I don't think it would be entirely unfair to read the rest of his article as indeed “an attempt to demolish integral philosophy or spirituality”.

Shouldn't readers of Integral World be concerned about this? If a transcendent experience isn't really possible, what is it that meditators are claiming to experience, or trying to experience?

Meditators are probably inclined to respond that since the experience is beyond words, the kind of claims based on language that Derrida was making don't apply. How can any intellectual arguments dismiss the reality of someone's raw experience? Desilet makes this diplomatic response:

If someone has such a peak experience and feels they have attained a level of consciousness convincing them beyond doubt of the oneness of all creation, then they should, and probably will, own that experience and pay no attention to critics such as me. The fact that others may believe such an experience to be profoundly illusory or impossible will not, and probably should not, deter them. None of us can do any more than to follow the brightest of our inner lights. But still, Derrida's account of being suggests attempts to turn such personal experiences into a science or religion of spiritual practice confronts great potential for disappointment concerning aspirations of both the founders and the followers of such practice.

In other words, the “beyond words” argument fails as soon as one resorts to words, which any teacher, or anyone trying to communicate any concept of spirituality to others, must appeal to. If you want to live in your own world, guided solely by your own experiences, you don't have to pay attention to Derrida, Stephen Katz (1978), and other philosophers who claim that transcendent experience is incommunicable and unprovable. But if you want to start preaching—even just modestly to a few acquaintances, let alone by building a system a la Wilber—you have a problem.

It's actually even worse than that. No one lives or can live in such a hermetically sealed environment. If one has no communication with others relevant to realizing spiritual experiences, how does one learn to have those experiences in the first place? If one can't prove that one has an experience, how could one learn how to repeat them? Do they come purely spontaneously, at random times and situations? And have no effect at all on the rest of one's life? If that is the case, of what value are they?

Derrida's view therefore implies rather strongly that the whole notion of spirituality is phony. I think we should be very clear that this is his conclusion, one shared I think by most postmodernists. How does one respond to it?

It seems clear to me that the fundamental objection that Derrida/Desilet have to Wilber's view of transcendence, as stated in the previous quote, is that it presupposes an absolute: a means of grounding the system and avoiding the endless permutations of interpretation, of indecisiveness, resulting from the interplay of signifiers and signifieds, and more generally, of all kinds of what Desilet refers to as “oppositional structures”. But transcendence need not be absolute. In fact, while Wilber does present a view of absolute transcendence, an alternative form of transcendence that is not absolute is also present in his system, though he has never much emphasized their distinctions. This needs to be done if we are to be clear on what kind of spiritual experiences could be compatible with postmodern views.

I will suggest that this alternative view of transcendence avoids Derrida's objections, though it does so at the cost of calling into question other aspects of spirituality dear to not only Wilber but to most traditional systems. Most importantly, it implies that we can't speak of “transcendent” or “realized” individuals, since transcendence in this sense, by definition, is not associated with an individual. This understanding of transcendence, then, does not challenge the postmodern view of the limits of individuals; but it does argue that these limits can be transcended in a higher form of life.

Dualism in Denial

Let's begin with the traditional view of transcendence. Here is how Desilet characterizes it:

Among theological traditions including a notion of God as creator and origin of the cosmos, one of the most commonly occurring distinctions may be found in the division between God and what God has made. Such distinctions follow the model of oppositional structure in which there is a sharp division between the two sides of the opposition, whereby God exists completely separate from and independent of creation. Furthermore, God is perfect and God's creation is perfect—at least until corrupted by a contaminating element entirely separate from God (usually explained as brought into existence as a consequence of God's bestowal of free choice among the agents in creation). In these types of cosmologies, therefore, God remains wholly transcendent of creation. The possibility of transcendence for the beings of God's creation entails liberation from exposure to sources of contamination. This enables a crossing over into the realm of existence which is in essence reunification with God and God's perfection. This transcendence is an absolute transcendence into perfected or fully realized being. In some spiritual traditions this transcendence is called salvation and in others it is called enlightenment.

The use of terms such as “oppositional structure” and “contamination”, as we will see later, play a key role in the postmodern argument against Wilber's system, which is why Desilet mentions them here. By referring to them in this passage, Desilet is setting us up for the claim that Wilber's view of transcendence is very similar to the traditional one, both susceptible to the same basic argument that they are rooted in traditional metaphysics. In fact, however, Wilber's view of transcendence, as we will see in a moment, has some significant differences from the traditional one. While it may be susceptible to postmodern arguments, these arguments seem to me to be quite unnecessary—rather a matter of overkill—to the traditional view. No Derridan maneuvers, no references to metaphysics, are required to criticize it.

The view expressed in the passage quoted above is plainly dualistic, and thus presents the classic problem associated with dualism: how can God create something without in some way interacting with it? Any interaction at all implies some kind of connection, in the sense that the properties of each become partly the consequence of the other. If God created the universe, God can't be completely independent of it, and if the universe is imperfect, it follows that God can't be perfect (whatever that could mean).

There are further problems with the concept of individuals within creation “crossing over” to reunify with God, problems which are also, at heart, rooted in dualism. Consider the situation as follows. We know that human thought, memory and language are all the outcome of physical processes in the brain. If God is completely separate from the physical world, then so is any experience of reunifying with God. This means that that experience can't have any influence on the physical world, which is necessary for one to think about, remember, or express in language that experience. This is basically a restatement of the second and third principles of Derrida, listed earlier. Stephen Katz (1978) makes a similar argument.

So the classical critique of dualism is all that is necessary to argue against this traditional form of transcendence. And indeed, Desilet in this passage assumes that transcendence goes hand in hand with a dualistic system. Thus he says, “God exists completely separate from and independent of creation…therefore, God remains wholly transcendent of creation.” There are in fact two aspects of transcendence assumed but not explicitly stated here. First, that God is prior to, higher than or in some other way superior to creation; this is implied by the assertion that creation is God's product, not the other way around. And second, God is completely separate from this creation. So transcendence is in effect understood in this passage as “completely separate from a lower form of life one created”.

To summarize, while the postmodern views expressed by Derrida and others may effectively demolish the traditional religious view of transcendence, I don't see that they are really necessary. Even within a framework that accepts the necessity of some form of metaphysics, this view fails. It's dualistic, and subject to criticisms of dualism that long preceded Derrida and the postmodern mindset. I emphasize this because Wilber's system, as we will now see, is not dualistic, at least not as obviously so as the traditional one. Even if it succumbs to Derrida's analysis, it should be respected as substantially different from the traditional view.

Who is More Impure—Postmodernism or Spirituality?

So what exactly is the problem with Wilber's view of Spirit, and of transcendence?

We now turn to Wilber's view of transcendence. Desilet describes it in this way:

Spirit is the theological equivalent of God in Wilber's spirituality and oneness with spirit is Wilber's version of enlightenment…he also retains for Spirit the quality of oneness and the potential for transcendence to absolute oneness with Godhead. Absolute transcendence and oneness with Spirit—enlightenment—is the goal of his spirituality, which is also the overcoming of dualism in what Wilber calls nondual spirituality. Nondual spirituality is of the essence of an integral spirituality because it exposes the illusory nature of essential divisions and thereby opens access to the subtle underlying reality through full realization of the harmonious oneness of everything in the Kosmos. Oneness and absolute transcendence go hand-in-hand in Wilber's thinking. This point cannot be emphasized enough. His insistence on absolute transcendence requires his version of nondual spirituality place ultimate emphasis on oneness.

We can now appreciate that Wilber's view, as Desilet himself emphasizes in the above passage, is not dualistic, at least it does not postulate substance dualism.[2] Though Desilet may believe that “Spirit is the theological equivalent of God in Wilber's spirituality and oneness with spirit is Wilber's version of enlightenment”, it would be much more problematic for him to add that “Spirit exists completely separate from and independent of creation…therefore, Spirit remains wholly transcendent of creation”. On the contrary, Wilber views Spirit as combining the traditional view of God—timeless, immortal—with the traditional view of creation—temporal, manifest:

Spirit is defined as the union of Emptiness and Form (where Emptiness is timeless, unborn, unmanifest, and not evolving, and Form is manifest, temporal, and evolving)

So what exactly is the problem with Wilber's view of Spirit, and of transcendence? A central flaw, according to Desilet, is that there is another kind of dualism—speaking very loosely—expressed in the concepts of Emptiness and Form. More precisely, they imply an unacknowledged metaphysical position. They exist in “basic opposition”, manifesting an independence of each other that is incompatible with Derrida's view. The latter regards the relationship between any oppositional pair (such as signifiers and signifieds) as blurred, or “contaminated”. This kind of relationship

implies both one and two simultaneously, in the sense of retaining essential difference—one cannot be reduced to the other—while displaying essential relation—one cannot exist without the other.

In order to explain Derrida's view of oppositional pairs more clearly, and to compare it to Wilber's, Desilet goes back more than sixty years to a book La Part Maudite (The Accursed Share), by Georges Bataille, which introduces a distinction between what Bataille calls restricted and general economies. Restricted economies are systems of exchange in which all matter, energy and information is accounted for in the interacting systems; general economies are those in which some portions of matter, energy and information are irretrievably lost. As a way of further explanation, I provide here some quotes from Desilet:

The word "economy" is used to indicate a structured movement of exchange, interaction, and transaction. In the context of metaphysics, "economy" refers to the potential for transitions and transformations of being…

"Restricted economies consider their objects and the relationships between those objects as always meaningful and claim that the systems they deal with can avoid the unproductive expenditure of energy and control multiplicity and indeterminacy within themselves. General economy exposes such claims as untenable" (Plotnitsky, 1994, p. 2). The untenability of these claims became evident in the 20th century when lack of strict causality emerged as a notable limitation in the theorization of information systems as well as the understanding of microcosmic particles in quantum physics.

A notable distinction between restricted and general economies arises from the different ways in which oppositional relation must be correspondingly structured…A restricted economy imposes a structuring principle establishing a strong polarity of opposites and clear lines of choice. In a restricted economy the structural tension between opposites such as true and false or fact and interpretation operates with a clarity facilitating either/or alternatives and decision-making. In a general economy, however, every oppositional structure submits to a reversal and a displacement…

Plotnitsky calls this structure complementary—after Niels Bohr and the quantum theory of wave/particle duality. Thus, the quantum view of matter and energy is an example of a general economy, as is any economy in which a version of entropy operates—where entropy is understood as imposing an element of disorder, disjunction, or loss of information yielding unpredictability, incalculability, or irretrievability. In addition to quantum theory, deconstructive semiology falls into this category of entropic systems.

Applying the principle of complementarity to any oppositional pair yields a structure in which the two sides of the opposition penetrate each other in every instance such that there is no pure instance of either. This circumstance then entails there can be no crossing over from an impure state to a pure state (absolute transcendence) because there are no pure states or pure instances of anything. This circumstance of oppositional structure supports, according to Derrida, the notion of a universal law of contamination (analogous to the law of iterability). This universal contamination does not accord with degrees of mixture or gradations of difference. Instead, this law of contamination presents the circumstance of superposition—superposition of continuity (irreducible dependence) and discontinuity (irreducible separation). In the domain of language, complementarity is consistent with the emergence of meaning variously through contingent contexts precluding a calculus of discrete either/or discriminations. Discriminations or judgments are not so much coerced or caused but rather motivated—motivated by a limited perception informed by the evaluation of what appear to be the most relevant factors of a here and now context. This universal law of contamination consistent with a general economy and a complementary structure of oppositional relation necessitates a deconstructive rethinking of the notion of transcendence...

Desilet argues that Wilber's view of Emptiness and Form reflects the assumptions of a restricted economy, in that they are understood as polar opposites; there is Emptiness and there is Form, each pure and uncontaminated by the other. As far as I can tell, this conclusion is based largely on Wilber's belief that earlier generations realized only a partial enlightenment, the timeless, in the absence of the temporal. According to Desilet, this betrays an assumption that timelessness and temporality can exist separately in pure form:

Such partial enlightenment would not be possible even in principle from within the dynamics of a general economy. It would not be possible because in a general economy each side of the opposition does not exist in the manner of differentiated or pure being apart from its opposite. It would not be possible, now or in previous eras, to authentically realize the timeless aspect of Spirit because no part of Spirit is timeless. In a general economic structure of oppositional relation each side of any given opposition is already and everywhere contaminated by the other.

I appreciate Desilet's bringing the restricted/general economies into the discussion. Bataille's views are certainly intriguing as an attempt to unify concepts in physics, chemistry, and language, arguing that all these systems may share some very deep analogies. Nevertheless, I think there are some important points to keep in mind in using these notions to conclude that Wilber's system has not escaped traditional metaphysics.

First, I find it ironic, at the very least, that Derrida, via Bataille, is using the evidence of late 19th and early 20th century science to support his attack on traditional metaphysics. Despite the radical findings of quantum theory and other advances in this century, most scientists accept, consciously or unconsciously, the myth of the given, and I would say remain hostile or at least indifferent to postmodernism. In other words, the uncertainties revealed in the discoveries of entropy, quantum phenomena, and others, have not convinced most scientists to drop the notion of an absolute, in the form of natural laws.[3] If these discoveries so clearly support a postmodernist view, why have the very men and women who have made them been unable to grasp this?

Second, Bataille's work, as extended by philosopher Arkady Plotnitsky, equates uncertainties associated with several rather different phenomena, including quantum theory, entropy and language. Desilet says, “the quantum view of matter and energy is an example of a general economy, as is any economy in which a version of entropy operates”. But our understanding of entropy emerged as part of classical physics, pre-dating quantum theory by almost half a century. While it's true that we now have a quantum concept of entropy, and even attempts to unify the quantum and classic concepts, the fact remains that the classical uncertainty associated with entropy is very different from quantum uncertainty. The uncertainty or loss of information associated with entropy is an observer problem; in theory, with powerful enough measurement devices, we could know with certainty the physical state of any entropic system.[4] The uncertainty of quantum phenomena is inherent in the phenomena themselves. It can't be eliminated by better technical apparatus.

There are further problems in drawing an analogy between the uncertainties in the meanings of words and those in entropy and quantum phenomena. Entropy can be observed objectively, in the sense that a physical system can be isolated from our own actions. The same is true, to a qualified extent, about quantum phenomena. To be sure, there are well-known quantum effects that suggest that the observer is always part of the system, but we can still regard the observer-system as distinct from the scientific community in general. The observer carrying out a quantum experiment may determine the outcome of that experiment, but the larger observer provided by scientific consensus is not so entangled. At least, this is the view or assumption of scientists themselves.

In contrast, we have no way of disentangling ourselves from language, either as individuals or as a community. Just as we can observe thought only through thought, we can observe language only through language. In my view, this conundrum is far more likely the reason for the uncertainties associated with language than any deep analogies with quantum phenomena. Several theorists have suggested similarities between the paradoxical nature of quantum phenomena and various paradoxes associated with biological, psychological and/or spiritual phenomena—at Integral World, for example, see Edwards (2000) and Goddard (2001)—but to my knowledge there is no scientific evidence that meaningful analogs to quantum phenomena occur at higher levels of existence. We really have no reason to believe that such phenomena exist anywhere outside the quantum world.

These points aren't by any means fatal to Derrida's conclusions, but they do underscore the difficulties in extending scientific concepts to fields of study far from where they originated. Just because a study of language reveals some apparent similarities to quantum phenomena doesn't mean one can conclude that all oppositional structures of all kinds must be impure or contaminated in just the way that wave/particle duality represents. I don't believe these scientific ideas count as evidence in favor of Derrida's position.

Moreover, even if we were justified in drawing such a conclusion, is Wilber's view really necessarily so different from the way that physicists understand complementarity? I agree with Desilet that wave/particle superposition can allow us to say that in some sense there is no such thing as a pure particle or a pure wave. However, the concepts of particles or waves remain clear and distinct, and it is because of this distinctness that we can describe quantum phenomena in their terms. In fact, quanta generally behave at any one time or place either as a particle or as a wave, and I don't know any physicist who would claim “there is no such thing” as a particle, or a wave. It is commonly accepted that there are particles and there are waves, even if there is no such thing as a particle that is always a particle, or a wave that is only a wave.

So even if one were to buy the analogy between quantum phenomena and language, and agree with Desilet when he says “there is no such thing as timelessness,” does it necessarily follow that the concept of timelessness is not useful, or that Wilber's description of Spirit as combining timelessness and temporality might not be a helpful way of describing it? If physicists can get away with saying, this is both a particle and a wave, why can't Wilber get away with saying, this is both timeless and temporal? Might the paradoxical nature of being both something and its opposite not in fact be best accounted for by a concept like superposition? What's to prevent Wilber from biting the bullet and conceding, OK, in Spirit, timelessness and temporality exist in a state of complementarity. The ancients could not have realized pure timelessness. Nobody can. Is that much of a concession?

A similar point can be made with regard to Desilet's second criticism of Wilber's view, that “Oneness and absolute transcendence go hand-in-hand in Wilber's thinking…His insistence on absolute transcendence requires his version of nondual spirituality place ultimate emphasis on oneness.” Yes, Wilber talks about oneness, and yes, he says, “I AM”, but in the nondual traditions he most closely aligns himself with this is an oversimplification. Most nondualists would say, neti, neti, not this, not that, not one, not many. Or to put it more forcefully, the nondual is neither absolute nor relative, neither pure nor impure. Again, it seems to me that this well known spiritual term is struggling to express something that might be, if not actually consistent with the postmodern view, at least not in stark contradiction to it.

Desilet, however, will have none of this:

Derrida would not use the word nondual to describe the relation of opposites construed deconstructively because it connotes too strongly in a direction obviating the irreducibility of twoness and division. However, it would also be misleading to suppose, on the other hand, that deconstruction may be aligned with any form of traditional philosophical dualism. The features of a general economy and complementarity of opposites belong to a different set of notions about division and opposition exceeding traditional dualistic and monistic notions.

Derrida…would find in both of these notions, Freedom and Fullness, a distinct betrayal of the nature of being. The ideal of "fullness," and of oneness with the fullness of the "productions of time" through all of time is still a classic expression of the metaphysics dominating the entire history of humanity—the metaphysics of presence and the ideal of the fullness of the "now."

The problem I have with these statements is that the use of words like “connotes”, “direction”, and “ideal” suggests that Desilet is guessing at what Wilber means. It seems to him that Wilber is expressing a classic polarity, whereas I find in Wilber's words enough ambiguity to be less certain of this. Other key terms in his critique, such as “purity” and “contamination”, lack specific definitions that would enable us—me, at least—to judge what Wilber really envisions.

Having said this, I don't think it's really necessary to appeal to these notions to demonstrate the incompatibility of Wilber's system with Derrida and postmodernism. It seems to me that Desilet makes this point adequately in the opening sections of his essay, where he documents Wilber's misreading of Derrida's views. Obviously Wilber would not have made this mistake—of claiming that Derrida accepted the necessity of a transcendental signifier--if Wilber did not believe that an absolute of this kind was necessary. Wilber himself, in his own words, is saying his system is grounded by an absolute. Hardly a need to prove this if Wilber doesn't deny it.

As I suggested in the beginning of this article, this in my view is the root of the problem. Traditional views of transcendence, including Wilber's somewhat different understanding of spiritual oneness, presuppose an absolute. But as I also noted earlier, it's not only possible to conceive of transcendence that is not absolute, there are in fact numerous examples of it. Let's now examine their features.

Natural Transcendence

There is reason to believe we organisms are now evolving into a still higher form of life.

In Wilber's system, transcendence is a term applied not simply to Spirit. It's found in relationships throughout the natural world. For example, a cell is said to transcend its component molecules; an organism transcends its component cells. As I mentioned earlier, Wilber does not make it very clear that when he refers to such relationships as transcendent, he is using the term in a somewhat different way from the kind of transcendence he applies to Spirit. And indeed, there are some important similarities. An organism's relationship to its cells, as we will see in a moment, has something in common with the traditional relationship between God and creation, or Wilber's view of the relationship between Spirit and the universe. But the differences are critical.

To complicate matters further, even in the natural world, Wilber uses the term transcendence inconsistently, applying it to relationships that have so little in common as to threaten to make the term useless. For example, the relationship of a bacterial colony to its individual members, or a planet to its individual molecules, is vastly different from the relationship of a cell to its molecules, or an organism to its cell. I have discussed in great detail these flaws and inconsistencies in Wilber's system elsewhere (Smith 2002), and will not reiterate them here. What is important for the current discussion is that there is a set of natural relationships, such as cell-molecules and organism-cells, which exhibit many fundamental similarities. They manifest what we may refer to as a natural form of transcendence. What would Derrida have to say about this?

Consider the relationship between an organism and its cells. Its signal features include a) a single, integrated form of life (or what Wilber calls a holon) is composed of a very large number of smaller, also integrated forms of life; b) the organism is far more complex than any of its component cells; c) the organism has properties that are completely unknown and incapable of being manifested or experienced by the cells; d) the organism is independent of any of its cells, in that their individual lives and deaths generally have no effect on the organism's integrity; and e) processes within the organism occur on a much longer time scale than those in cells, and the organism itself has a characteristic lifetime that greatly exceeds that of the cells.

So when we say that an organism transcends its cells, we can list a number of very specific properties that define transcendence. A similar list defines the relationship between a cell and its component atoms. And in one important sense, the relationship seems almost absolute. The organism exists in a world that is invisible, unknowable, and, if it were conscious in any sense, inconceivable to that of an individual cell. While it is not infinitely larger than an individual cell, the difference is astronomical. While it is not immortal, its lifetime spans that of an enormous number of generations of individual cells. While it is not timeless, it exists in a highly stable, virtually unchanging form over periods of time in which individual cells are constantly in flux, being born, differentiating, growing and dying. We might say that the relationship between an organism and its cells approaches infinity, immortality and timelessness.[5]

Yet the relationship between an organism and its cells is not absolute, in the way that the relationship between God or Spirit to creation is alleged to be. While the organism may be independent of any individual cell, it is completely dependent on cells in general; if there were no cells, there could be no organisms. Wilber acknowledges this in his principle: destroy one level of existence, and you destroy all the levels above it. The properties of organisms, the much greater complexity that they manifest, emerge from interactions among cells; everything that the organism does, is, or experiences is reflected in the behavior of some of its cells. There are numerous interactions, communications, which go both from cell to organism and organism to cell.

In other words, there is no question about an organism and its cells having a dualistic relationship. Neither is completely separate or independent from the other. While the gulf between a single cell and an organism is immense, it is finite, and the process by which individual cells become organisms can be understood in terms of a finite number of steps.

Moreover, there is another feature of natural transcendence that does not simply distinguish it from an absolute relationship, but which strongly suggests that the latter is not even possible. Natural transcendence is open-ended; that is, when one level of existence is formed, lifeforms or holons on that level may associate to form a still higher level. The entire evolutionary history of earth may be understood in this fashion, as molecules evolved into cells, and cells into organisms. As I will discuss in the following section, there is reason to believe we organisms are now evolving into a still higher form of life.

Given this situation, there is no particular reason to believe that any particular level is the highest possible or ultimate.[6] Furthermore, since the existence and features of a higher level are for the most part unknowable to a lower level, it follows that no level of existence can have certain knowledge that it is the highest level possible. This ignorance is built into the concept of transcendence.

This is my Wilber point that I don't think can be overemphasized. If you want to build a system based on transcend and include, this system, essentially by definition, can never have an absolute or ultimate ground of existence—at least not one we could ever be certain of. The notion of such an absolute is basically incompatible with the notion of transcendence. Closure in this sense is precluded.

But this rule cuts both ways. As we will see later, it's precisely because of this built-in ignorance that the experience of oneness is possible. The experience of oneness does not mean, or prove, that there is an absolute oneness to the universe. It simply means that it's possible for certain forms of life to understand themselves in this manner. The inability of life at one level to be aware of life at a higher level means that oneness—a lack of distinction between self and other—can be experienced in a world in which other may in fact exist.

Natural Transcendence and Spirituality

Would Desilet/Derrida be comfortable accepting transcendence in this sense?

So far I have discussed examples of natural transcendence that clearly differ from the notion of spiritual experience. The latter would have to involve something that is transcendent to the organism, to the human individual. As I have speculated elsewhere (Smith 2009), the most likely candidate would be the entire earth. The relationship of human beings to the planet in several key respects parallels that of neurons to the brain. Thus the population of earth, about 7 billion, is comparable to the number of neurons in the brains of fairly complex organisms like nonhuman primates. The organization of neurons in the mammalian brain shares several major features in common with the organization of humans on earth, particularly small world connectivity. So it is not entirely fanciful to hypothesize that life on earth could form—perhaps is evolving into—a higher, intelligent form of life that would bear much the same general relationship to an individual human as the latter does to its cells.

The oneness claimed for spiritual experience, on this account, would be identification with the entire earth. This experience would not be of a genuine absolute, of the ground of all existence, because the earth is of course only one small planet in one solar system in one galaxy in the universe. Yet compared to ordinary human experience, in which we identify with a single body and mind, identification with the earth would be extraordinarily profound. Moreover, as I will discuss later, it is quite possible to experience a oneness—a lack of distinction between self and other—that is not an absolute.

As I noted earlier, the relationship between a higher, transcending system and a lower one is not dualistic. There are definite connections between the two. In the case of an individual identifying with the earth, these connections would presumably include changes in the brain associated with this experience. These changes could interact with thought and language, and other functions of the individual mind. So there is no reason, at least in principle, why transcendence in this sense would be incompatible or logically inconsistent with communication of the experience. For sure, communication would be difficult and highly imperfect; but there is no absolute barrier preventing it.

Would Desilet/Derrida be comfortable accepting transcendence in this sense? We have just seen that natural transcendence does not imply immortality or timelessness, two features usually associated with absolute transcendence in religious or spiritual systems. Desilet argues that these features not only don't represent the transcendence of all desires, but are actually the expression of basic desires:

immortality is a misleading name we give to desire. The notion of immortality actually reflects the desire to extend mortality, to extend our existence within time for a longer duration. We want to live in time without the ravages of time while retaining all the advantages of time.
The ideal of timelessness masks a desire for survival—the desire for persistence through time into a future in which the last day is far away, unknown, and rarely confronted in the imagination. Timelessness is a way of thinking escape from the destructive effects of time while not escaping from its constructive effects.

I don't think there's any question that the kind of desires that Desilet describes here not only exist, but underlie the drive of many people to realize higher consciousness. But what Desilet doesn't seem to acknowledge is that just because a desire is focused towards something different from actual transcendence doesn't mean it can't be effective in the path to realization. The fact that people are initially motivated by desires of one kind or another—even by desires for something that is an illusion, that doesn't exist, that may be impossible—doesn't mean that a process by which all desires are gradually transcended can't occur. Nobody ever said that the spiritual path was clear and direct from day one.

But doesn't existence necessitate desires? If we truly were without desire, what would be the point of living? Desilet is getting at this when he objects to the notion that spiritual growth involves complete eradication of or indifference to the self:

To see what is wrong with this attitude toward spiritual growth it is only necessary to imagine who—as in what sort of person—would be relieved to be rid of the burden of the demands made by the self and its desires. This person would necessarily be one who finds the constant pull of desire to be too exhausting, too great a challenge. This person would be one who declines to learn how to live with desire and how to negotiate the pain in failing to fulfill desires.

I think Desilet actually understates the case for desires here. Desires are essential to individual existence. They motivate us to act, and without them, there would be no reason to act in one way rather than another, even to go on living. There would be no purpose to life at all. Desires evolved in lower vertebrates hundreds of millions of years ago, and though many human desires are far more complex than those of other animals, they serve the same essential function. Without desires of some kind, life as an individual organism would be literally impossible.

But the whole point of transcendence is to go beyond the individual organism, and individual desires. I think the mistake Desilet is making—understandable, because it is made by a large number of people who claim to describe and promote spirituality, including those whom he is attempting to to address his postmodern criticisms to—is to view spirituality as an individual accomplishment. It isn't. If we take the notion of natural transcendence seriously, there is no such thing as a realized individual, because realizing a higher form of consciousness means transcending the individual.[7] It does not necessarily involve transcendence of or indifference to any notion of self whatsoever[8]—contrary to the view expressed by Karen Armstrong that Desilet's previous quote is a reply to—but it is incompatible with continued identification with the individual. To repeat, the self is now associated with a much higher form of life, which transcends and includes billions of individuals.

This doesn't mean an individual can't have temporary and/or partial realization of a higher state of consciousness. It doesn't mean that this experience can't have an effect on an individual life. But I think we do have to let go of the popular notion that one can exist as an individual, living in this world, and simultaneously as a completely realized higher form of life. Again, to experience full realization means transcendence of individual desires, and complete absence of desires is incompatible with existence as an individual.[9]

Perhaps Desilet's greatest objection to the traditional view of transcendence, however, is aimed at the assumption that higher consciousness, by virtue of transcending ordinary consciousness, can escape deconstruction—that it is completely beyond the impure, contaminated interplay of oppositional structures:

According to integral theory, the normal self always manifests as a construct and thereby remains open to deconstruction whereas the witness self emerges as the performing agency or medium of deconstruction and therefore remains undeconstructible. The witness can never function as the object of its own gaze because the very act of turning inwardly on itself requires a witness. The witness is always there as the background of every act of gazing. This witness has no content and is therefore, in the judgment of integral theorists, completely empty, pure, and whole. Descriptions of this witness self make use of notions of the pure in phrases such as "pure action of consciousness," "pure flowing attention," "pure activity," and "pure intensity." Such expressions of purity and its possibility are of a piece with expressions of wholeness peculiar to a restricted economy and its characterization of the extremes of the two sides of any opposition.
In Derrida's thinking, however, the undeconstructible must never be confused with the pure, the whole, or the indivisible. The essence of consciousness lies in its infinite impurity, its infinite divisibility, its inherent exposure through an abiding structural openness to the constant coming of the other in the yet-to-come. Every instance of consciousness and being—including, insofar as it makes sense to say, consciousness itself or being itself—is necessarily already divided. Consciousness and being are split by difference all the way to the core. And, to the extent the notion of origin remains intelligible in a deconstructive approach, origin becomes origins such that even the origin is divided at its origin. Consequently, for Derrida, nothing counts as pure. Similarly, no absolute transcendence or purely absolute other exists within a metaphysics where division counts as a fundamental part of the essence of its formulation of being and origin.

What is this witness? The road to higher consciousness, according to most spiritual traditions, begins with self-observation, with viewing our thoughts, emotions and actions. This process needs to be carefully distinguished from what philosophers mean by introspection, a technique which in effect involves analyzing some thoughts with other thoughts.[10] Through this self-observation process, one develops a consciousness that is independent enough of the individual mind to be able to observe it objectively.

For anyone who objects to the notion that consciousness could stand back and objectively view aspects of the mind, I think Wilber's The Atman Project (1980) provides a cogent response. The theme of this book is that spiritual development has some similarities (though Wilber probably overestimates them) to normal human development. During the process of growing up, we learn to regard somewhat (though not completely) objectively functions that we initially identified with: our physical body and its physiological processes; our emotions; and eventually, some of our thought processes.

Wilber's brilliance here was in realizing that the path to higher consciousness can be understood to some degree as an extension of this process. Thoughts that the ordinary human being identifies with, regards as “I”, become observable by another, higher sense of “I”. This doesn't make such a higher consciousness pure in any absolute sense, nor does it make it “the performing agency or medium of deconstruction.” I agree with Desilet that higher consciousness can't function as a transcendental signified.

But the reason it can't is because it's not relevant to language. They exist in two different worlds, not totally unconnected, but so far apart that we're talking apples and oranges. The problems of interpretation go on at a level below that of higher consciousness. The latter transcends human language, and as such, it's hard to see how any of Derrida's points could be relevant to it.

Language is a game played among individuals. Higher consciousness is a feature of a form of life that transcends the individual. The earth does not communicate with other planets using human language. If it really is, or could be, a higher form of life, we can be quite sure it does not experience itself in any way remotely similar to the way individuals experience themselves. There is no reason to think that consciousness on this level would be any more aware of human language than an individual human is aware of the neuronal language that occurs incessantly within the human brain. Our experience of ourselves, including our use of language, emerges from neuronal language, but the details of that language occur completely below our awareness. No doubt Derrida's view of language as infinitely impure and infinitely indivisible could be applied to neuronal language as well as human language, but relative to it, our consciousness would remain irrelevant.

Moreover, there is another argument to be made that I think goes to the heart of Derrida's project. Desilet and Derrida, like most philosophers, have a tendency to conflate the terms “mind” and “consciousness”, that is, to equate objects of consciousness with consciousness itself. This view is widely accepted by philosophers, because it's generally believed that consciousness can't exist without an object—that if one is conscious at all, one is conscious of something. On the strength of this assumption, Derrida finds that the observations he makes of language are a direct reflection of consciousness itself—that everything that can be said about thought and language can be extended unproblematically to consciousness itself. If thought and language manifest “an infinite impurity, an infinite divisibility, an inherent exposure to the yet-to-come”, then so must consciousness itself.

I think this assumption needs to be challenged. Consciousness in the hard sense—as qualia, as raw experience—is arguably distinct from any object of consciousness. If it were not, there would not be a hard problem—an apparently unexplainable gap between observable, measurable behavior, and actual human experience. Even if we consider all examples of our ordinary consciousness, which does have an object, these conscious experiences share something very fundamental that has nothing to do with any object. There is something about consciousness that we are all intimately familiar with that completely defies explanation in terms of any particular object of consciousness.

Moreover, a widely shared experience of meditators is that one can in fact be conscious without an object. This is usually considered to be one of the defining features of higher consciousness. Even if one wants to question this kind of evidence—and remember, if higher consciousness is a manifestation of natural transcendence, the postmodern arguments against being able to prove and communicate such transcendence lose much of their force—a very similar type of consciousness is likely associated not simply with meditative experiences, but with any form of life at the beginning of a new level of existence. Evidence for this comes from an immense range of physiological and behavioral studies, which allow us to infer the kind of consciousness an organism is experiencing or would experience based on observable function and behavior (Smith 2009). For example, very primitive organisms make little or no distinction between self or other in their behavior, suggesting that if they are conscious at all, their consciousness would not include an awareness of self vs. other. Newly developing organisms, including human babies, also approach this state, are at the very least much closer to it than mature adults are.

If consciousness can exist without an object, then we aren't justified in making sweeping conclusions about the properties of any form of consciousness based on observations of its objects. Just because thought and language exhibit complementarity, infinite impurity, a constant yet-to-come, does not mean that consciousness itself does, or must. One could accept that Derrida is saying something profound about the objects of consciousness without necessarily agreeing that his views apply to consciousness itself, and particularly in the case of consciousness without an object.

In this important sense, one can argue that spiritual realization does involve an eradication of self. The self, as we modern humans understand it, is a complex construct involving not simply a single individual, but innumerable interactions we have with other individuals, which define this self. Language of course plays the primary if not indeed the sole role in these interactions. Most people are so deeply identified with language and thought that they simply can't comprehend that consciousness could be experienced in any other form. But in the new level of existence represented by spiritual realization, self in this sense—dependent on relationships with others—does not exist. It does not exist not just because thought and language have been transcended, but because in any newly emerging level of existence, there is no distinction between self and other. We tend to take the self vs. other distinction for granted because it is such an obvious an essential feature of our ordinary, adult experience, but it is not a feature of all forms of consciousness. Some forms of consciousness really are experienced as oneness, and these include the higher consciousness sought by meditators.


Postmodernists like Derrida present a major challenge to spiritual transcendence by arguing against traditional features of God or higher consciousness like immortality and timelessness. Fundamentally, the postmodern argument is directed against the notion of an absolute. The best documented examples that we have of transcendence, however, as it occurs throughout nature, do not involve, indeed cannot involve, an absolute. Understanding spiritual transcendence in the same way as these natural examples suggests that it involves identification with a higher form of life that while existing on a physical and temporal scale far exceeding of individual humans, nevertheless avoids the problem of an absolute. While it may be difficult coming to terms with the possibility that a human being could transform into identifying with a much more complex form of existence such as the entire planet, understanding spirituality in this way does enable us to escape the postmodern arguments, and begin to conceive of the process in a way that is consistent with our understanding of the natural world.


1. There is actually a fourth law (Zeroth law) having to do with equilibrium, which might be interpreted as: “and everyone else is in the same boat as you are”.

2. Wilber could be characterized as a property dualist, however, when he asserts that every holon has both an interior and an exterior. In property dualism, consciousness or mind is considered to be an inherent, irreducible and unexplainable feature of matter.

3. In his book After Finitude, Quentin Meillassoux (2008) regards this as a key vulnerability of the scientific worldview, and argues for a universe in which even the most fundamental laws are the product of chance.

4. Such a device would create its own entropy, of course. So there is no way we could determine the physical state of every part of the world. But in theory we can eliminate entropic uncertainty in localized situations, just as localized situations can exist in which entropy does not increase. The earth itself, of course, is an example of the latter.

5. A transcendent relationship that actually realizes infinity, immortality and timelessness is exemplified by mathematical dimensions. A one-dimensional line is infinite relative to a zero-dimensional point, and we could conceive of these points in a way that they were mortal and temporal, yet composed a line that was immortal and timeless. Similarly with the relationship between a line and a plane, a plane and a three-dimensional figure, and so on. I express this distinction by describing natural transcendence as involving natural dimensions, rather than mathematically “pure” dimensions (Smith 2009).

Note, however, that even mathematical dimensions fall short of expressing an absolute relationship in one important respect. While one dimension may be immortal and timeless with respect to a lower dimension, it is infinitely less with respect to time and mortality relative to a still higher dimension. This ultimately reflects the fact that there are different classes of infinity, that an infinite set may be be infinitely small relative to some other set.

6. Wilber, consistent with most traditional spiritual systems that he derives his views from, would point out that I'm presupposing the scientific belief in bottom-up evolution, in which the simplest systems emerge first, gradually developing into more complex ones. Most spiritual systems assume that the highest form of existence/intelligence came first, creating the lower forms of life which then (in Wilber's view) evolve or return to their origin. However, even if we adopt this view, the nature of transcendent relationships is such that we could never be sure that any level we realized was the highest or ultimate.

7. This view should not be taken to preclude that there is some higher form of consciousness that does not involve identification with the entire earth. An intermediate level, so to speak, which may be quite compatible with individual existence. But the fact that the earth exists as an immensely complex society of human beings suggests that there is or could be a state of consciousness associated with this higher form of life. And this type of consciousness seems much more compatible with the traditional spiritual view of oneness and of seeming transcendence of mortality, time and space.

8. However, I will qualify this later. There is an important sense in which transcendence does involve a complete eradication of self.

9. One possible solution to this conundrum would be to argue that desires continue to function in a realized individual, but below the consciousness of the higher form of life. Desires, in this view, would be regulated in much the same manner as autonomic functions, such as those controlling the heart, digestive system, and so on, are controlled in the ordinary human being. The individual would be on automatic pilot, so to speak, her behavior still motivated by specific desires, but not at all aware of this, or needing to be.

This arrangement would permit an individual to continue to live an outwardly normal life while actually not at all conscious of being an individual, but only of being a much more complex form of existence. It would imply that the physical body would not have to die for an individual to realize full and permanent higher consciousness. However, I think it would still be problematic to refer to such an individual as a realized individual, in the same way that we would not say that our autonomic nervous system has realized conscious thoughts and emotions. The individual would be part of the higher form of life, but no more so than the billions of other individuals on earth.

10. The key difference between meditation and introspection is meditation observes thought by stopping thought. The two processes are identical. There is no other way to observe thoughts objectively. Any attempt to observe thought without stopping it only results in other thoughts, which are not true observations, but only consequences of the thoughts one is attempting to observe.


Desilet, G. (2012). Derrida and Wilber at the Crossroads of Metahyscs,

Edwards, M. (2000) The integral cycle of knowledge,

Goddard, G. (2001) Quadrants reinstated: a reply to Andrew Smith,

Katz S.T. (1978) Language, Epistemology, and Mysticism. In Mysticism and Philosophical Analysis, S. T. Katz, ed. New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 21-74

Meillassoux, Q. (2008) After Finitude. An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency. New York: Continuum

Smith, A.P. (2002) God is not in the quad: a summary of my criticism of Wilber,

Smith, A.P. (2009) The Dimensions of Experience (X-libris)

Wilber, K. (1980) The Atman Project, Quest Books

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