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Ken Wilber: Thought as Passion, SUNY 2003Frank Visser, graduated as a psychologist of culture and religion, founded in 1997. He worked as production manager for various publishing houses and as service manager for various internet companies and lives in Amsterdam. Author of Ken Wilber: Thought as Passion” (SUNY Press, 2003), which has been translated into 7 languages, and of 150+ essays on this website.

Fruitless Fractals

Getting Lost in Recursive Patterns

Frank Visser

Frustra fit per plura quod potest fieri per pauciora ("It is futile to do with more things that which can be done with fewer", William of Ockham
These recursive patterns are fascinating, because they are "self-similar", however we zoom in or out. But they pose a threat when used beyond their proper domain.

Many years ago, I wrote the book Seven Spheres (1982, 1995) in Dutch, summarizing the worldview of a specific Theosophical school of thought called Adyar-Theosophy, based largely on the works of Annie Besant and Charles W. Leadbeater (an English translation of some chapters can be found here). On the back cover the first sentence read: "If there is more than the material world of birth, life and death, what would reality most likely look like?" At the time I found this a particular version of esoteric philosophy (there are many more) that made most sense to me, given its empirical bent (many of its ideas were based on clairvoyant observations). There was room for both body, mind, soul and spirit in this worldview. Life after death, reincarnation, evolution and mysticism could be dealt with quite rationally. I felt a need for such an alternative to materialism, because interiority—or more specifically, my own felt interiority—did not find a place within the world of matter (or so I thought). What I want to highlight is that according to some authors in this field, these seven spheres were actually a subset of seven larger cosmic spheres.

planes of the universe
Source: Robert Gulick, on Pinterest

Here's a beautiful graphic representation of this highly complex esoteric worldview. As you can see from this diagram, the scope of the lowest seven spheres—in which we live—was limited to our solar system. In this Theosophical philosophy, the visible sun had a spiritual essence, the Solar Logos, which governed everything that happened within its sphere of influence, including biological and human evolution on earth. This particular presentation is proportional (and even rather homely) compared to the many spiritual/idealist systems of philosophy these days (including Wilber's) that see a cosmic Spirit as active in the processes of our tiny planet earth, without adequately making this a plausible or even workable proposition.

Why I no longer stand by that occult worldview is a story on its own, but one of the things that broke the spell for me is the endless recursion of worlds within worlds, apparently hypothesized to explain, well... what exactly? It claimed to explain evolutionary processes by the working of Spirit, and as you will know by now this explanation is no longer convincing to me—to put it mildly. Ironically, the alternative I had discarded (materialism or physicalism) turned out to be appealing precisely because of its simplicity. Even though we haven't explained the nature of interiority or consciousness, materialistic science has yielded a wealth of data about cosmological and biological evolution, which is worth paying close attention to.

fractals in nature, geometry and algebra
Various fractals in nature, geometry and algebra.

This tendency to multiply explanatory principles beyond any reliable reason can be found in many areas. This often relates to the concept of "fractals", which was introduced by Benoit Mandelbrot in 1975. It is based on the Latin fractus, meaning "broken" or "fractured", and refers to a particular aspect: these fractal patterns retain the same form on whatever scale we observe them. Fractal patterns can be found widely in nature, ranging from the coast lines of England to the branches and twigs of a tree. These recursive patterns are fascinating, because they are "self-similar", however we zoom in or out. But they pose a threat when used beyond their proper domain. Seeing recurring patterns everywhere is a dicey game, as we will see in this essay.

A good example of this frequent use of recursive fractal patterns can be found in the essays of Integral World author Joe Corbett. In his latest two essays, he argued that there is a "self-similarity of states and stages in the kosmos"[1], and that everywhere we find a fourfold pattern:

Simply put, the AQAL is the Kosmos, and the Kosmos can be characterized as having 4 basic states within 4 basic domains through which 4 basic stages develop, giving 64 basic Kosmic addresses or locations for occupying space-time. The Chinese hexagram system of the I-Ching comes to mind as a comparison.
In the first iteration of Kosmic self-similarity, each quadrant-domain of the Kosmos has a gross, subtle, causal, and non-dual aspect, and in a second iteration each of these aspects have a pre-conventional, conventional, post-conventional, and supra-conventional (or integral) level of development.
The 4 domains are also the Great Chain of Being: body-nature, mind-self, soul-culture, and spirit-society…

In a follow-up essay called "The structure of kosmic deep-time"[2] he wrote:

One of the deepest and most primordial structures of the universe is its pattern in the unfolding and enfolding of time. And that pattern just so happens to conform to the Great Chain of Being (gross-body, subtle-mind, causal-soul, nondual-spirit)… As above, so below, this is the beauty of the self-similar universe.

Here are a few correspondences discussed in that essay:

unification of forces nondual-spirit supra-conventional
hot plasma soup causal-soul post-conventional
formation of atoms subtle-mind conventional
material universe gross-body pre-conventional
Table 1: The Structure of Kosmic Deep-Time (Corbett).

I refer to these two essays for details, but I want to highlight that here, several heterogenous fourfold schemes are treated as equivalents: four quadrants or domains, four states, four principles of human nature, four stages of human and cultural development, four phases of cosmic evolution, the four fundamental forces of physics, and so on. Striking in this re-interpretation of the perennial philosophy is that metaphysical conceptions of higher worlds or dimensions are replaced with those of physics—though the dizzying complexity of esoteric schemes is retained. Corbett argues this is the only way to be truly post-metaphysical.

Yet, some of these fourfold schemes seem arbitrary to me. Can cosmic evolution be divided only in four phases (of fundamental forces, plasma soup, atoms/stars and the material universe as we know it)? In Big History it is customary to speak of twice as many periods or regimes: (for example: Eric Chaisson: 8, David Christian: 9, Tyler Volk: 12, etc.).[3][4][5] Of course, like the color spectrum, subdivisions are always possible, but that is the very reason we should be careful with defining "basic" stages, especially when they relate to very different fields of human activity and experience.

So let's start again at the beginning; the perennial philosophy taught us a fourfold composition of human nature: body, mind, soul and spirit. Huston Smith argued in his Forgotten Truth (1976) and Beyond the Post-Modern Mind (1982) that each of these "levels of selfhood" corresponds to its own "level of reality". As there is a bodily world corresponding to the body, there is a mind-world, a soul-world, and a spirit-world. As Wilber is fond of saying: "every mind has its body"[6], but I would add—putting my occult hat on for the moment— "every body has its world", for bodies just can't float around in a vacuum. Hence all the esoteric subtle bodies and worlds.

Huston Smith, Beyond the Post-Modern Mind, p. 62.

Even if we bracket for a moment the metaphysical existence of these higher worlds, this fourfold division of body-mind-soul-spirit covers everything we need from birth to enlightenment; from prepersonal beginninigs to transpersonal completion. This is the reason Wilber understood (especially in his older works) spirituality as a form of sustained development. With some flexibility we could also align it with the scheme of preconventional-conventional-postconventional-postpostconventional or supra-conventional (although mind is actually postconventional, and not conventional, and "soul" is already Third Tier, in integral speak, not just postconventional). See? Even at this simple level of comparing fourfold schemes things get a little bit tricky. For sure, we are primed by evolution to see patterns, but not all patterns have a basis in reality.

Things get in my opinion really, really complicated when this fourfold scheme is aligned with the four (arbitrary) phases of cosmic evolution, for which Corbett uses the esoteric term "involution" (a term also used, but in a different sense, by Wilber). Wilber uses involution in the cosmic sense of pre-big bang, where the fundamental constants of the universe, which enable subsequent life and consciousness to arise, are set, so that the whole of cosmic evolution can be understood as evolutionary. In contrast, Corbett interprets the first phases of cosmic evolution as involutionary (if I understand him correctly) in the sense that from the formless cosmic plasma the concrete universe is materialized (and the subsequent evolutionary return can begin). But why use spiritual terms (involution, nondual spirit, supraconventional stage) for essentially primitive material phenomena? Esoteric philosophy uses the term "involution" not for these material cosmic processes at all, but limits it to the downpouring of the divine life into the world of matter (and not the creation of this material world itself). These subtle difference might come across as, well... esoteric, but that's how it is. If we use these terms we should be clear about the meaning we give to them, and about how they have historically been used by others.

So far, so good. But then the complexities run amok, where Corbett argues that quadrants have aspects and aspects have stages and stages have states... so that we end up with myriad distinctions which don't really explain much in terms of empirical reality. "The Chinese hexagram system of the I-Ching comes to mind as a comparison", he wrote. Indeed. Compared to this type of uber-complexity Wilber's AQAL-developmental schemes look friendly and elementary—and more helpful.

This penchant for finding or postulating recurrent patterns in development can also be found in the system of Spiral Dynamics, which has been very influential in integral circles (much to the chagrin of the original authors, a full timeline of this story can be read here.[7]) Spiral Dynamics postulates 8 stages of socio-cultural devolopment, which are divided into six "first tier" or subsistence stages and two "second tier" or being stages.[8] Speculations can be found on what lies ahead of these eight stages, and sometimes four extra stages are mentioned, based on the reasoning that these second group of six stages are a "prime" of the first series of six stages, and a possible third set would be a "double prime". Clare Graves speculated in this The Never Ending Quest even on a Fourth Tier, where he called Second Tier "Being Level I Systems", Third Tier "Being Level II Systems" and Fourth Tier "Being Level III Systems".[9]

"And finally, there is the need to distinguish conceptually between certain gross classes of levels, between the levels of the first spiral of psychosocial development and those levels which appear later in psychological time. The first six together I will call THE SUBSISTENCE LEVEL SYSTEMS. Those of the second spiral I will name BEING LEVEL I SYSTEMS. Those of later spirals, should they come to be, would be designated as BEING LEVEL II SYSTEMS, BEING LEVEL III SYSTEMS, etc."

That would amount to a stupendous 6x4=24 stages! With what evidence, one might ask?

Table 2.
A Comparison of color terminology in Integral Theory and Spiral Dynamics.
" T H I R D   T I E R" " S E C O N D   T I E R "
WHITE: Supermind ???
VIOLET: Meta-mind TEAL
" S E C O N D   T I E R "
YELLOW, FlexFlow
" F I R S T   T I E R "
GREEN, HumanBond
ORANGE, StriveDrive
BLUE, TruthForce
RED, PowerGods
PURPLE, KinSpirits
BEIGE, SurvivalSense

Source: Frank Visser, "A More Adequate Spectrum of Colors?", May 2017.

This relates directly to the controversy around Wilber's recoloring of the Spiral Dynamics palette, which I have researched elsewhere in fuller detail.[10] The upshot is that I side with Wilber in his defense of a Third Tier, mystical or transpersonal level of human development, since it relates to the soul-part of the human constitution which could in principle be investigated (even if Wilber strictly follows Sri Aurobindo's subdivisions of this domain). It may come as a surprise to many but Second Tier has nothing to do with mystical spirituality—neither in Spiral Dynamics nor in Integral Theory. It is related to centauric body-mind integration with vision-logic—no more, no less. Objecting to a Third (or Fourth, or even a Second) Tier on empirical grounds is, of course, entirely valid. In contrast, some SD-ers claim that Second Tier's six stages need first to fully be traversed before we can speak of any Third Tier—if at all. Again, this too is in my opinion a case of fruitless fractals, far removed from empirical realities and lost in recursive patterns.

It may come as a surprise to many but Second Tier has nothing to do with mystical spirituality—neither in Spiral Dynamics nor in Integral Theory. It is related to centauric body-mind integration with vision-logic.

Against these esoteric and idealistic top-down schemes I propose to rebuild our knowledge bottom-up, so that we stay close to empirical details and work our way up, to a comprehensive understanding of reality. And yes, this may end up with the conclusion that in the end there is only "birth, life and death". So be it.


[1] Joe Corbett, "Self-Similarity of States and Stages in the Kosmos",, March 2020.

[2] Joe Corbett, "The Structure of Kosmic Deep-Time and the Next Phase of Kosmic Evolution",, April 2020.

[3] Frank Visser, "Integral Theory and the Big History Approach, A Comparative Introduction",, May 2013.

[4] Frank Visser, "The Dissipative Universe and the Paradox of Complexity: A Review of David Christian's Origin Story",, June 2018.

[5] Frank Visser, "Looking For the Grand Sequence, An Integrally-Informed Review of Tyler Volk's "Quarks to Culture",, February 2018.

[6] Frank Visser, "What's It Like to Be a Super-Nova?, Ken Wilber's Cosmic Approach to the Mind-Body Problem, Review of "The Religion of Tomorrow", Part IV",, May 2017.

[7] Frank Visser, "Frederic Laloux and His Critics, Finding Middle Ground Between Skepticism and Belief",, May 2018.

[8] Clare W. Graves, "Humanity Prepares for a Momentous Leap", The Futurist, 1974.

[9] "FAQ Colors and Terminology",, ca. 2004 (now offline, but available on The Internet Archive Way Back Machine).

A suggestion is now floating around that the second tier consists of only A'-N' (Yellow) and B'-O' (Turquoise), and that C'-P' (Coral) is where the ego begins to dissolve toward grand unification with the godhead. That's not Graves or SD. Heaven help us, there's talk of awakening this "Third Tier" as the route to nirvana and blissful fulfillment and meshing with the all that is all, even suggestions of dropping in on it - rather than merely an ecstatic state - through drugs like the 1960's psychedelic dabblers hoped. OK. Perhaps the great becoming actually is just ahead. Who knows what the future holds? But such talk is not in line with this theory; it belongs in the realm of new-wave spirituality and consciousness-speak. The SD "third tier," if tiers there are at all, would be the third playing of the six basic themes - the double primes - A''-N'', B''-O'', etc., and that's a long way off. An evolutionary shift might well happen before homo sapiens gets there.

This source offers interesting and rather sobering comments on the whole Tier discussion, to the effect that it might not be as "momentuous" as it was first thought to be, and even Graves might have overestimated the "jump" from Green to Yellow:

It is possible, you see, that the G-T [Yellow/Teal] state appeared to Dr. Graves as a momentous leap - an order of magnitude different sort of human being - because of the perch from which he observed. He lived in a world heavily dominated by D-Q [Blue] and E-R [Orange]. F-S [Green] was just rising to prominence in the 1960's and 1970's. G-T was clearly a stretch, indeed; H-U [Turquoise] was barely imaginable. Today, however, the perch is somewhat expanded, though many retain their D-Q and E-R anchors without fully realizing it. Human nature has changed a bit in 40 years.

If I am correctly informed, the term "momentous" was added by the publisher of the Futurist magazine, and isn't used in the article itself (though Graves does use the expression "leap to a great beyond" in this context).

[10] Frank Visser, "A More Adequate Spectrum of Colors?, A Comparison of Color Terminology in Integral Theory, Spiral Dynamics and Chakra-psychology, Review of "The Religion of Tomorrow", Part III",, May 2017.

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