INTEGRAL WORLD: EXPLORING THEORIES OF EVERYTHING
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 IntegralWorld.net 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.

SEE MORE ESSAYS WRITTEN BY FRANK VISSER

Telling the Story
As If It Were True

Review of "The Integral Vision"

Frank Visser

This is a blatant Wilber-commercial.
Not a shadow of doubt falls on these pages.

With every new book by Ken Wilber, my feelings of ambivalence have grown towards him and his writings. In the past decade, and especially since the foundation of Integral Institute and its many offshoots, his major agenda seems to have been not to launch a scientific debate but to start a cultural movement.

This, of course, changes the discourse from careful statements backed up with evidence and an acute and honest awareness of possible objections to one's own views, to one of slogans, rhetoric and repetitive "arguments". Fertile ingredients on which any ideology, the integral ideology included, will thrive.

Psychoanalysis was once very hip and cool. It was fun to psychoanalyze one's friends (and enemies), trying to uncover their repressions and projections —as much fun, in fact, as it is now in integral circles to point out where some nasty critic is "green" or lacks sufficient "altitude". But psychoanalysis definitely caught on.

As Wilber confided in the interview "Bodhisattvas are going to have to become politicians" I held with him back in 1995, he has something similar in mind:

As a point of reference, remember that psychoanalysis had much of its greatest impact in fields that were also outside of psychology. It was a major and profound influence in literature, in literary theory, in political theory and discourse ... in art and in theories of art, even in artistic practice ..., and in education and educational theories and practices. Because psychoanalysis was in fact plugged into some very important (if limited) truths, it proved itself by completely exploding out of the narrow confines of psychology and having an extraordinary impact on other fields.

And I think we are now on the verge of something similar happening with [integral] studies, perhaps not as widespread, but at least quite similar. Its impact is moving rapidly beyond the field of psychology. And many of us have been working on this much more expanded field of [integral] studies, and this also includes my own recent work.[1]

This obviously confuses influence and popularity with truth and validity. "Proving oneself" by becoming popular is of course not the same as becoming validated after careful examination.

We all know what happened to psychoanalysis. It was studied by later generations when the hype was over and found lacking in many ways. Will integral thought suffer the same fate? Well, yes, if it continues to focus on advertising instead of validation, on endless monologues in which integral philosophy is "explained" instead of true dialogue and debate, in which Wilber's views are challenged by experts from various fields. And especally, if the official policy seems to be that of dismissing criticism instead of actively inviting it.

But unfortunately, over the years, Wilber's intent has not been to open up his work for a true academic debate, or even an online debate among those thoroughly familiar with his works, but to teach his ideas to an increasingly wider circle of his own students. Not to offer his ideas to academic forums, but to even create an Integral University of his own. Telling the story as if it were true, with all the rhetorical devices at his disposal —wild claims of support from scientific research, from spiritual traditions, from his own experience —has become second nature to him.

In Sex, Ecology, Spirituality, which was published more then a decade ago, and of which the announced volumes 2 and 3 have still not been published, this approach was more or less a conscious literary choice:

Nonetheless, this broad orienting map is nowhere near fixed and final. In addition to being composed of broad orienting generalizations, I would say this is a book of a thousand hypothesis. I will be telling the story as if it were simply the case (because telling it that way makes for much better reading), but not a sentence that follows is not open to confirmation or rejection by a community of the adequate."[2]

Jeff Meyerhoff commented wrily on this passage in his online book on Wilber called Bald Ambition, which has been published on this website, in the chapter on "Methodology and Philosophy":

Much better reading, but much worse scholarship; for how is the reader to know what parts are the "simple but sturdy" knowledge, and what parts are the "hypotheses"? [3]

And, incidentally, readers of this website have witnessed what the statement "not a sentence that follows is not open to confirmation or rejection" was worth. Critics that openly challenged Wilber's statements were labelled "bad critics", which one could ignore, or abuse (see the "Wilber West Wilber Report"); those who more or less agreed with Wilber were labelled "good critics", with which one could have a polite conversation. Or sometimes even they were ignored...

A really interesting Wilber debate, where there's complete freedom of thought and mutualty among the participants, has not yet seen the light of day. It sometimes looks as if Wilber has taken his own motto "Everbody is right" to really mean "... especially me, and with the exception of my critics, who are always wrong". Alas.

In Wilber's latest, The Integral Vision —most of which has appeared in chapters of Integral Spirituality —this habitual style of writing —"telling the story as if it were simply the case" —has come to it's climax: this is a blatant Wilber-commercial. Not a shadow of doubt falls on these pages.

Specifically catering to a new market of readers who may have heard about Wilber, but have never taken the trouble to read his more academic works, this book will convince those in need of an overarching spiritual philosophy and practice, but not those trained in the careful methodology of science.

Just one example from many:

Research consistently shows that you can be at virtually any level or stage of growth and have profound and authentic religious experiences, peak experiences and altered states.[4]

What research? one my ask. Consistently? Where was it published? Who did the research? Were the researchers "integrally informed"? Could it be replicated? Why do these questions sound silly in the integral community?

Another:

One of the things that researchers have learned over the past three decades about the relationship between states and stages..."[5]

Again, what research is referred to? Who were these researchers? Were they related to Wilber? Isn't this topic not something that has only been brought up by Wilber himself in the first place? And that only relatively recently? Is Wilber actually doing research?

These quotes relate to one of Wilber's core theses: that states of consciousness and stages of development are independent. Let's examine this core thesis more closely now.

Around 2002 Wilber started to elaborate his theory of the relationship between states and stages, first in online publications, later in his published works. Before that date, the idea was more or less that mystical states can be a "sneak preview" of higher, spiritual stages of develoment, but that only when these stages are stabilized can one have a permanent spiritual awareness. "States become traits", as the saying went. One could increase the speed of development, but stages in itself could not be skipped.

In contrast, in his new writings, Wilber seemed to focus more on states of consciousness over stages of development. He enthousiastically wrote:

All individuals have access to the three great realms/states of gross, subtle, and causal, simply because everybody wakes, dreams, and sleeps. Thus, even an infant has access to these three great realms.[6]

Note the word "simply", which has become Wilber's all-time favorite rhetorical device to persuade the readers of the validity of his argument.

What does Wilber want to say here? Is this statement more than a circular one? If one defines the three realms of gross, subtle and causal as those of waking, dream and sleep, then yes, infants have access to these three great realms "simply because everybody wakes, dreams and sleeps". But that is the simplicity of circularity.

On the other hand, if one defines "subtle" and "causal" as spiritual states of being, as is common in the literature and in Wilber's earlier writings, then claiming that even infants can access these realms, "simply because they dream and sleep", is not so simple anymore. These natural conditions may be a necessary condition for being able to contact the spiritual dimension —but that has to be argued for independently —but are they sufficient? And if something else is needed, for example, a sustained intensification of meditative awareness, where does that leave the original confident assertion that even infants can acces them?

Wilber again:

The infant also has access to the various subtle and causal states (because it dreams and sleeps). Thus the purple-stage child can have an authentic subtle realm experience and causal-realm experience.[7]

Again, the suggestion here is that "simply" because an infant dreams and sleep, it can access "authentic" subtle and causal experiences. A leap in logic if you ask me.

Mark Edwards responded to these early statements with a 2-volume paper called "An Alternative View on States", which has not received any reply from Wilber so far. And mind you, it is not that the academic world has fully dealt with this particular Wilber-hypothesis, so that he can safely ignore the laborious work of a Wilber critic, not even if it is a "good critic", in Wilber's own words). In fact, the opposite is true. Outside the online Wilber community nobody in the academic world actually cares about these ideas.

Edwards started his essay with:

The current integral theory of states is in need of some very serious house cleaning. [8]

In this essay Edwards carefully reviews the evidence from various sources —logical arguments based on Integral theory itself, studies on childhood spirituality, the authority of the Vedanta and Buddhist traditions, the idea of the "ever present" and pre-existing nature of states, the evidence from dream and deep sleep studies and the evidence from studies of highly advanced meditators —and concludes:

The foregoing has been my attempt to see how Wilber's theory of states might be improved to conform with the rest of the Integral theory model and in particular with its PTF theorem. Wilber has brilliantly outlined the pre-personal, personal, to transpersonal nature of developmental transformation. This model now needs to used as a filter for reviewing the wonderful traditional models of the Vedanta and Vajrayana so that a consistent integral theory of states can be further developed. I propose that the involutionary nature of the sleep states be fully and completely recognised and integrated with the states theory. Such a view will open up a new understanding of the crucial nature of involutionary processes for the maintenance of the self system. It might also relieve us of the age-old futile burden of trying to find the transpersonal in the beautiful, simple darkness of deep sleep and the entrancing illusions of our nightly fantasies rather than in the dreams for the future that we bring into the cold, hard light of each good day.[9]

Even though this essay is already 5 years old, reading it will be much more rewarding then listening to Wilber's undocumented and unargued, repetitive statements about states.

Wilber's "theory" —or should we say "hypothesis"? Or should we say "hunch"? — about the relationship between states and stages is visualized by what has come to be called (guess by who?) the "Wilber-Combs matrix". It is a matrix diagram of stages (on the vertical axis) and states (on the horizontal) axis, creating cells of 28 types of states/stages-combinations:

Let's use a simple 7-level scheme of stages of consciousness (archaic, magic, mythic, rational, pluralistic, integral, super-integral) and 4 types of states of consciousness (gross, subtle, causal, nondual), which gives us 4x7 or 28 types of spiritual or religious experience. And we have found evidence for every single one of them...."[10]

Every single one of them? Where's the research? Where's the data? Did the researchers check for a trend in the data, so that higher stages seem to be aligned with higher states (as Wilber's earlier theory would predict and for which he argued, against those who believed in childhood spirituality)? In science, one doesn't get very far with sweeping statements.

To conclude with a more esoteric notion, which Wilber has mentioned in passing in this book (as he mentions everything "in passing" in this book). Philosophical and religious traditions East and West, even to this day, have references to "subtle bodies", ranging from the coarse physical to the more spiritual. This topic has been the subject of a 4-volume study by the Dutch philosopher J.J. Poortman. It was published in the English language as Vehicles of Consciousness in 1978.[11] All cultures seem to have known this notion that the soul is embodied by a subtle covering (kosha). Some clairvoyants have even claimed to be able to see these subtle bodies (taken together they form the human aura, see my "Subtle Bodies, Higher Worlds").

Wilber introduces the concept as follows (note the I-language he is using):

States of conscioussness do not hover in the air, dangling and disembodied. On the contrary, every mind has its body. For every state of consciousness there is a felt energetic component, an embodied feeling, a concrete vehicle that provides the actual support for any state of awareness.[12]

Notice the inconsistency that something that is a "concrete vehicle" is described as a "feeling", thus confusing the Upper-Left and Upper-Right quadrants.

Trying to take away the obvious raising of eyebrows among his readers, he confidently asserts:

I have 3 bodies? Are you kidding me? Isn't one body enough? But keep in mind a few things. 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 ourselves to our immediate awareness."

However, bringing in philosophers and phenomenological jargon doesn't help here. An energetic feeling is still a feeling, a subjective state. A mode of experience is still an experience, a subjective state. Nobody, not even a clairvoyant, has ever seen his own subtle bodies in a phenomenological way. It is typical that according to the available literature, it is only the subtle bodies of others that are reported as having been seen. 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? It's not even consistent with his own theory. But perhaps it is more pleasing to his "post-metaphysical" audience he is trying to reach?

And on it goes... Wilber gives 1-minute excercises to strengthen your subtle and causal bodies, and hey, I heard you can even have sex in them!

REFERENCES

[1] Frank Visser, "Bodhisattvas are going to have to become politicians", Fax-interview with Ken Wilber by Frank Visser; 15 July 1995, published on www.integralworld.net

[2] Ken Wilber, Sex, Ecology, Spirituality: The Spirit of Evolution, Shambhala, 1996, p. ix-x.

[3] Jeff Meyerhoff, "Methodology and Philosophy", Bald Ambition, Chapter 8, www.integralworld.net

[4] Ken Wilber, The Integral Vision, Shambhala, 2007, p. 139.

[5] Ken Wilber, The Integral Vision, Shambhala, 2007, p. 142.

[6] Wilber, Ken, "Waves, Streams, States, and Self--A Summary of My Psychological Model (Or, Outline of An Integral Psychology).", 2003, wilber.shambhala.com.

[7] Wilber, Ken, "Sidebar G: states and stages - Part II. States and stages in development.", 2002, wilber.shambhala.com

[8] Mark Edwards, "An Alternative View on States", Part I, 2003, www.integralworld.net

[9] Mark Edwards, "An Alternative View on States", Part II, 2003, www.integralworld.net

[10] Ken Wilber, The Integral Vision, Shambhala, 2007, p. 142.

[11] J.J. Poortman, Vehicles of Consciousness, The Concept of Hylic Pluralism, Wheaton: TPH, 1978.






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