An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber

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Ken Wilber: Thought as Passion, SUNY 2003Frank Visser, a psychologist of religion, founded in 1997 (back then under the name of “The World of Ken Wilber”). He worked as production manager for various publishing houses and as service manager for various internet companies and lives in Amsterdam. He is the author of the first monograph on Ken Wilber and his work: “Ken Wilber: Thought as Passion” (SUNY Press, 2003), which has been translated into 7 languages, and of many essays on this website.


My take on Wilber-5

Frank Visser

In the yet to be published book Integral Spirituality, and in various online postings of the past couple of years, Wilber has summarized his post-metaphysical view[1], generally called “Wilber-5”. This phase can be understood as an attempt to shed any attachments to the perennialist word view, which postulates a series of ontological levels of being, or worlds. Since knowledge of these worlds can only be speculative, the argument runs, modernity and postmodernity will dismiss them as metaphysics in the bad sense of the word (not based on experience). But Wilber claims his post-metaphysical reconstruction can salvage the essence of the primordial traditions, without their ontological baggage.

While I sympathize with this effort to reformulate ancient traditions in a form that is acceptable to modern tastes, I question the claim that the essence of these traditions comes across in the post-metaphysical version.

This is often a delicate choice between modernizing traditional insights and criticizing modernity for its superficiality. Where in the past Wilber has been a fierce critic of flatland philosophy of materialism, he has now turned the tables and criticizes premodernity for its untenable teachings. Perennialism seems to receive the same judgement; it is now placed in the premodern category as well.

I maintain there are interesting differences between (exoteric) standard mythical religious beliefs, and their (esoteric) mystical or rather, occult reformulations. This distinction is strangely absent from Wilber's latest writings. Also, we should take a closer look at the arguments used by modernity to reject most of the premodern heritage. At the same time, it is an interesting exercise to reframe perennialism into a form that is not offensive to modernity or postmodernity.

To make his case, Wilber appropriately turns to Huston Smith's Forgotten Truth: The Primordial Tradition, the classic overview of the traditional (“primordial” as Smith calls it) outlook on life. Smith argued that, compared to modernity, the traditional outlook was deeply ontological: it postulated a series of worlds, reaching from the visible world to the Divine. When science arrived at the scene, this worldview was rejected, never to recover, which tempted everybody to believe that this was somehow caused by something science had discovered.

Has science discovered that these higher realms don't exist? Not so. Smith argues that there is a logical mistake here, and a "misreading of science":

"Our contemporary Western outlook differs in its very soul from what might otherwise be called "the human unanimity". But there is an explanation for this: modern science and its misreading. If the cause were science itself, our deviation might be taken as a breakthrough: a new departure for mankind, the dawning of an age of reason after a long night of ignorance and superstition. But since it derives from a misreading of science, it is an aberration. If we succeed in correcting it, we can rejoin the human race."

"Science challenged by implication the notion that other planes exist. As its challenge was not effectively met, it swept the field and gave the modern world its soul. For this is the final definition of modernity: an outlook in which this world, this ontological plane, is the only one that is genuinely countenanced and affirmed."

Searching for the way things are, we found that the modern reduction of reality to a singly ontological level was the result of science. But its psychological, not logical result; this was our further finding. Nothing in what science has discovered controverts the existence of realms other then the one with which it deals.... Reality exceeds what science registers."[2]

From “science cannot see these worlds” it went to “science has disproved these worlds” — and scientism was born.

When science decides that scientific knowledge should be limited to the world of the senses, it should be no surprise that anything that is beyond that horizon no longer can be spotted. We hear nothing of this logical error in Wilber's latest writings: it seems he has accepted the fact that this error has been committed on a large scale in modern society and trying to correct it is a hopeless case. We should however, continue to point it out.

Given modernity's disdain for ontology, the way out of flatland for Wilber is purely an epistemological one. By arguing for an epistemological (and methodological) pluralism, scientific knowledge need no longer be tied to the world of the senses alone.

According to his view of “deep science”, we not only have a sensory science, but also mental science and spiritual science. Where sensory science deals with visible objects, mental science deals with ideas, concepts symbols and meaning, and spiritual science with the self that observes both objects and ideas. In all three domains, Wilber is convinced, the same formal threefold process of injunction/observation/verification is followed.

This approach has strengthened the foundation of the social sciences, and even suggested the existence of a new field of research, spiritual science. These three sciences, however, operate within the world of modernity, which accepts only the world of the senses when it comes to ontology. We are embodied beings, who can perceive, think and meditate, but that's about it. Perceptions, thoughts and visions exist in a particular "worldspace", as Wilber calls it, so are not “metaphysical”, in the sense he's using that word. But what's the status of these mental phenomena? Thinking this through will bring us in ontological waters.

In my opinion, Wilber hasn't thought through the issue of the ontological status of his Left Hand quadrants. This issue now hides behind the confusing notion of the "intra-physical", which isn't further elaborated upon.

Is intra-physical a physical concept? Then no physicist would subscribe to that notion. Or is it metaphysical? Then what's the point of calling all this "post-metaphysical"? Isn't all science supposed to be "post-metaphysical"? So what's the big deal then? And if he introduces the notion of "intra-physical", that surely introduces ontology in its wake? For Wilber, "post-metaphysical" primarily seems to refer to "evidence-based", compared to speculative. If that's the case, it's an unfortunate label for a view that explores other experiential avenues then the bodily senses alone.

To accommodate to these modern-day conditions Wilber usually gives a restricted, what we could call “waking state-version" of the four quadrants. In this version, the Upper-Right (UR) quadrant is devoted to the 'outside-exterior' of the individual, meaning his physical body/brain. The Upper-Left (UL) quadrant is reserved for “interiority”, which has a somewhat dubious status in this this-worldly presentation.

Wilber uses the 4Q model often as a means of classification of scientific approaches: so the UL quadrant gets those that focus on the interior (without committing themselves to any statement as to its ontological status). The “higher” levels of tradition are now reinterpreted as “inner” realities, which find their home in the UL quadrant. Modernity is usually suspicious of anything interior, but within this academic presentation, there's hardly anything to object to.

This is the reformulation Wilber has in mind:

“What the premodern sages took to be meta-physical realities are in many cases intra-physical realities: they are not above matter, nor beyond nature, nor meta-physical, nor super-natural: they are not above nature but within nature, not beyond matter but interior to it.” [3]

The UR quadrant gets a very prominent role in this waking state 4Q model. Since every inner state of mind has correlates in the brain, the inner states become grounded in neurology and brain research. In the traditional outlook, the physical plane was the lowest of a whole series of worlds, but in the post-metaphysical view, things are different, says Wilber:

“In the manifest world, "matter" is not the lowest rung in the great spectrum of existence, but the exterior form of every rung in that spectrum. Matter is not lower with consiousness higher, but matter and consiousness are the exterior and interior of every occasion.”[4]

This is, he feels, the "naturalist turn", we should make to save religion from extinction. According to Wilber, this UR quadrant also becomes the home of “subtle energies”, since they are also part of our “exterior” makeup. According to tradition, this subtle energy comes in many varieties: typically divided into gross, subtle and causal bodies/energies. In the traditional view, each state of mind is supported by its corresponding subtle energy. Wilber uses the term "signature energy pattern" to point to this phenomenon.

A Couple of Questions

These reformulations bring a couple of questions to mind, that I haven't see raised yet.

For example, what does it actually mean to say that mind is “intra-physical”, “within nature” or “interior to matter”? Even in the 4Q model, mind is still “beyond nature”, for it cannot be reduced to the brain. So even if it is true that the findings of modernity in terms of brain science have been added to the picture, this does not change the fact that the status of inner experience is highly problematic given the prevailing materialistic ontology.

Even if it is conceded that most, if not all, states of mind have physical correlates, that does not make them into unproblematic physical phenomena. They still need to be explained as phenomena in their own right, as “irreducible subjectivity”. It's a simple change of metaphor, that hasn't brought us closer to a solution of that question. We are back to where we started.

Besides, when the perennial traditions depicted the higher spheres as "above" the world of the senses, that was only done in the sense of a diagrammatic representation, conveying the information that these higher spheres had more depth, more consciousness, more spirit. They were never meant as an accurate picture, as if these spheres were somehow disconnected from the lower worlds – a distinction that seems lost on Wilber.

As to the inclusion of subtle energy in the UR quadrant, something doesn't seem to fit here as well. Either “subtle energy” can be detected with physical instruments (Wilber refers to several types of research done, e.g. by Killner), but then it isn't subtle anymore; or it cannot be detected by these means, but then it doesn't fit into any of the waking state quadrants. Can all types of subtle energy really “be fully situated in the UR quandrant”? It all depends on a clear definition of the scope of the UR quadrant, a definition that is currently and consistently lacking in Wilber's writings.

As I wrote in "Subtle Bodies, Higher Worlds":

“If we define it [the Upper Right quadrant] as everything we can see objectively of an individual using the physical senses, the UR quadrant is filled with gross matter alone -- in levels of complexity, for sure, but not in any ontological sense. If we define it as everything we can see objectively of an individual using interpretation, the UR quadrant is filled with types of behavior: selfish, etnocentric, worldcentric, compassionate -- but these reflect inner levels or stages of development. If we define it as everything we can see objectively of an individual using clairvoyance, the UR quadrant would be filled with all our bodies, gross, subtle and causal. That would make the four quadrants truly Kosmic in nature.”[5]

So yes, subtle energy falls within the broad UR category, but does not fit well into an UR quadrant that is defined as the “outside of the individual” as it is usually understood. Or at most these energies correlate with physical brain processes, just as much as these correlate with states of mind, but in no way do they fit easily in the UR quadrant themselves (perhaps in a higher octave of that quadrant).

The one-sidedness and glibness of Wilber's presentation also shows in his treatment of the idea of subtle bodies:

“For the wisdom traditions, a “body” simply [sic] means a mode of experience or energetic feeling. So there is coarse or gross experience, subtle or refined experience, and very subtle or causal experience. These are what philosophers would call “phenomenological realities”, or realities as they present themselves to our immediate awareness.[6]

Note the I-language used here — “experience, feeling, phenomenological reality” — where it-language should be more appropriate. The idea of a subtle body is nothing if not referring to a body-as-seen, as compared to an (purely imagined?) body-as-felt. And these subtle bodies have been observed and documented. Saying “for the wisdom traditions a 'body' simply means a mode of experience or energetic feeling” seems an overstatement and a quadrant misplacement. Simply? Or simplistically?*

According to perennialism, equating the subtle body with a dream body, as Wilber often does, isn't quite accurate. For we have this subtle body even when awake. It is true that in our dreams we withdraw ourselves into the subtle (astral) body, but most of the time without being aware of it. Only when we have gained self-consciousness on that level of existence do we become aware of this astral body, and of the corresponding astral world. But these are very much ontological notions Wilber wants to keep out of the picture.

The third reformulation Wilber suggests, relates to the LL quadrant of culture. In his opinion,

“much of what the ancient sages took as metaphysical absolutes are actually culturally molded and conditioned.”[7]

This cultural conditioning can however be filtered out:

“This does not mean that there are no cross-cultural truths or universals. It simply means that identifying them has to be done with much more care than metaphysics imagined; and that much of this identifying has to be done with research methodology, not speculative metaphysics.”[8]

For example, by comparative religion. Perennialism is a case in point: it has tried to formulate the religious universals found in all major religions. So while it is appropriate to criticize the often narrow and sectarian mythic religious belief systems all over the world, this does not hold true for their esoteric forms. Exoteric believers often state that salvation depends on the membership of their own specific religious denomination, but esoteric mystics never see it this way. Mythic true believers always go to heaven, and have non-believers sent to hell; but esoterically seen, heaven belongs to all mind-beings, simply because heaven is the mind-world. And there we're back again with Huston Smith's scheme of worlds.

Perennialism can also conceptualize the subtle energy phenomenon without trying to uncomfortably squeeze it into a quasi-physical quadrant. Man is seen as consisting of a spark of consciousness that is clothed in several bodies or “vehicles of consciousness”. None of these, except the physical body, can be seen by normal vision (or physical instruments), but clairvoyants claim to be able to see some of them. Actually, taken together they are called the “aura”, and “subtle energy” hardly covers this intricate phenomenon. The lowest, physical body enables us to move around and perceive on the corresponding, physical plane.

But whenever we exist beyond that plane, after death, it is observed that the next higher body (the astral body) takes on that role. In that sphere, again four quadrants can be drawn, with the astral body and its energies naturally occupying the UR quadrant, and the higher principles again being relegated to the UL quadrant. Indeed, this would make the AQAL model a true Kosmic Compass.

In a very real sense, these data are not to be dismissed as speculative metaphysics, for some people claim to have observed them, as we ourselves can observe normal physical phenomena. They exist as observables in a "psychic worldspace", to use Wilber speak. Modernity wants none of this, but since when is modernity the rule? Shouldn't integral philosophy have a critical function here? The issue of what to take from premodernity, modernity or postmodernity, and what to leave behind, should always be open to discussion.


* Incidentally, this very question, expressed in my recent blog posting "Boldness Revisited", triggered Wilber's hysterical over-reaction (in the infamous Wyat Earp blog), where he ranted:

It’s gotten to the point that one critic cringes when I simply use the word “simply” (as in the previous paragraph), because it means something horrible is going to follow. In this case, true—the horrible thing that followed was this critic’s charge. But simply still, I simply cannot stand this simple criticism of simply anything, let alone “simply,” so simply suck my dick, whaddaya say?

As with many of the criticisms Wilber "not-responded" to, nothing substantially was answered or dealt with here. As Jeff Meyerhoff pointedly wondered in his "An Intellectual Tragedy" – in response to the PDF that can be found on, "Ken Responds to Recent Critics: Mark Edwards, Jeff Meyerhoff and others", and which shows Wilber's customary "shooting from the hip" style of "responding" to criticism:

We see this behavior again in the recent blog entry. Ironically, this kind of crude, black-and-white thinking comes from a man who says that '“You do not understand your opponent's ideas until you can argue them better than he can”—and I take that seriously.' Yet in most of the rebuttals I cite, he not only does not argue the ideas better than me, he can't even describe the criticisms. And to double the irony, he contends that because I am of a lower altitude the criticisms I make are neither true, nor false, but nonsensical. Yet if, as he says, he's truly way ahead of us critics, and is serious about criticism, why can't he even get the criticisms right? If they are so easy to rebut, why not just state what they are and respond, instead of mangling them into crude, either/or simplifications?

These questions are not loopy, they are not lunatic, they are not ridiculous – they are relevant, informed and timely.


[1] K. Wilber, 'On the Nature of a Post-Metaphysical Spirituality', see also: 'Excerpt G: Toward A Comprehensive Theory of Subtle Energies', Parts of Excerpt G will be published in book form, for the first time, and with minor modifications, in Integral Spirituality, Shambhala, Fall 2006.

[2] Huston Smith, Forgotten Truth: The Primordial Tradition, Harper, 1976, p. x, 6, 17. When "Integral Spirituality" has been published this fall, we will have more to say about Wilber's deconstruction of Huston Smith"s ontological view on reality.

[3] Excerpt G

[4] Excerpt G.

[5] F. Visser, 'Subtle Bodies, Higher Worlds',

[6] K. Wilber, What is integral?

[7] Excerpt G.

[8] Excerpt G.

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