Frank Visser, CLIMBING THE STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN: Reflections on Ken Wilber's “The Religion of Tomorrow”
INTEGRAL WORLD: EXPLORING THEORIES OF EVERYTHING
An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber
Publication dates of essays (month/year) can be found under "Essays".
Frank Visser, graduated as a psychologist of culture and religion, founded IntegralWorld.net 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 many essays on this website.
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Jeff Meyerhoff submitted his book manuscript Bald Ambition: A Critique of Ken Wilber's Theory of Everything back in 2003 to Integral World. Chapters of the book got serialized between 2003 and 2005. Last year, in 2010, a hard cover version of the book was published by Inside the Curtain Press, owned by Scott Parker. I wrote a forword to the book, because I have always supported the initiative to further the field of Wilber studies, even if from a highly critical point of view. To re-introduce this book to the Integal World audience and the wider world, I have asked Jeff a couple of questions about the book, to which he provided some candid answers, in which he looks back with mixed feelings on the years he spent studying Wilber.
Why now an offline book, self-published?
Scott Parker, who's written for integral world [Winning the Integral Game?], proposed the idea and offered to edit and publish it. It never occurred to me. I liked the idea of a "real" book. Also, Scott said that a book is hard to read online and I realized he was right. So Scott Parker edited it and has published it through his press called Inside the Curtain. Of course he's taking a sizable chunk of the gargantuan profits that are accruing.
What is your academic background, what is your expertise to write about Wilber?
I got a BA in Economics from Tufts U but had no interest in learning. My desire to pursue intellectual matters started after graduation with reading Noam Chomsky's books on politics. I had felt confused by how the world worked, but after reading Chomsky I realized you could really understand what was going on.
So I expanded from Chomsky to other areas but found you can't get the same degree of certainty in other areas - especially philosophy - that you can in politics. Then I discovered Richard Rorty whose philosophy is a debunking of philosophy and I've been reading him and other philosophers ever since. His Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature is my debunking Bible. I went to graduate school at Brandeis U in Sociology but chose the wrong field, not realizing I really preferred philosophy.
While at Brandeis I discovered the Gurdjieff work and then Buddhist mindfulness. After withdrawing from Brandeis ABD (all but dissertation) because academia was too intellectual, I pursued Buddhist practice and then psychotherapy (as a patient), which I still do. After graduate school I just kept reading in philosophy, psychology, spirituality and politics. So I'm partially self-taught and partially academically trained. Philosophy is my primary interest, especially questions about knowledge.
What triggered you to write Bald Ambition back in 2003?
I saw Ken Wilber's Collected Works published in the old Wordsworth Bookstore in Harvard Square, Cambridge and exasperatedly thought "This guy is getting his collected works published before he's died?!"
Then, on another occasion, I saw Sex, Ecology, Spirituality on display and started reading the first page where Wilber talks about how postmodernists, or whatever he calls them there, don't think there is any purpose or meaning to the cosmos and think people who want to ask about purpose and meaning are immature. I just thought "I believe the people he opposes and he's so wrong!" So I started reading more and had the same reaction then that I currently have ten years later: initial fear that he's right; a vague sense that something's wrong with what he's saying; and then the cultivation of that vague sense into a full-fledged understanding of how he's getting it wrong.
"HE'S GETTING IT WRONG"
Can you summarize your conclusion about Wilber?
The vast, diverse, integrated, evolutionary-developmental system he creates is attractive and inspiring for some, but it is not supported by the evidence he adduces nor the argumentation he uses. Certainly we all adopt worldviews to our liking, but if you contend that your worldview has the backing of the collective knowledge of academia and mysticism then it had better stand up to scrutiny. If it doesn't, which is what I show about Wilber's system, you've got a major problem.
What is it's most original part, the psychological chapter?
Yes, Chapter Nine [A Different Path], where I defend a psychology of belief. And the psychological analysis of Wilber's beliefs using what information I could find about his psyche.
Also, while it isn't an original method, actually tracking down Wilber's sources and examining the academic literature he's referring to. Not enough of that was being done. And, while I don't think my work inspired it, the second generation of integralists, like Sean Esbjorn-Hargens, are emphasizing the need to make integral studies academically respectable. My book is saying: "Wilber is saying that academic results justify his system, can it stand up to academic scrutiny?"
What do you consider the best parts of the book?
I think it's written clearly, which is very important to me. The scholarship is careful and I think I track down Wilber's sources and the counter-evidence well.
I find my justification of a psychology of belief compelling, but I don't know that others do, although it could be that it hasn't been seen by academics. I may get a chance to present it at the"Psychology and the Other" conference in October. I'm curious to see what real academics will make of it. The Psychological Analysis of Wilber's Beliefs chapter I find convincing but is perhaps not the whole or even central story. I place loss at the center of his psyche and I'm not sure I now think that's true, yet when I reread the chapter my previous self convinces my current self. An odd occurrence.
The case for loss in Wilber is strong, but intuitively I just don't feel it captures what's central. Excuse the vagueness, but I think back on the unusual degree of deference that people writing papers with mild criticism of Wilber would show him. Even an established scholar like Michael Washburn sensed that he needed to tread carefully with Wilber. And the creation and way Wilber protected his little fiefdom suggested a fragility of the self and identity. There wasn't the usual intellectuals' detachment.
And then the explosion of the Wyatt Earp blog. The rage, the manipulation, the attempt to split the community by creating a litmus test of crude for or against. And the resulting hardening of the boundaries of his fiefdom. Being criticized can be thought of as a loss, a loss of the other's agreement, but it feels a bit here more like a wounding and a feared collapse of worth or self. Hence the extreme manipulated rage and lashing out of the Earp blog entry. I do think I'm hovering around it here, but there's not enough information to understand the core issue.
I suspect that if I thought about it currently I'd focus more on some disorder of the self in Wilber that the grand theory is working furiously to compensate for. His identity is dependent on the regard of the theory in a way greater than it is for most; hence the notorious Wyatt Earp blog entry. We all do Freudian sublimation, Wilber just happens to be an especially gifted practitioner of it.
My present self is doubtful of what my past self argued, yet because my past self was so much more knowledgeable about the issues, he, my past self, convinces my present self. Yet, as we do, even when someone makes an argument we can't counter we don't change our views. We just sort of put the undermining argument on the shelf so we can continue believing what we've believed all along.
What was the hardest part to write?
Chapter One [on Holarchy]. It's about the scientific and technical aspects of the holarchy and the four quadrants. My background in the natural sciences is weak. Finding Andy Smith's, Mark Edwards's and Gerry Goddard's excellent works was crucial. But I did give myself a crash course in systems thinking, complexity and evolutionary biology. I made some of my own observations, but it was Andy Smith's work that, mostly, allowed me to write it.
Can you understand why readers find your psychology chapter over the top, even malicious?
Yes I can. First, if you're not conversant with or a believer in that kind of psychological analysis it seems foreign and like irresponsible speculation. That's what I thought before I learned about psychology. But that's true of most well-developed worldviews that are foreign. You wonder how anyone can believe them. But then if you learn their language-game they can create believable worlds. The psychological interpretations I did in the Wilber chapter and on myself are the language I use every day in my daily life and at work as a social worker.
Second, people probably think that it undermines the validity of what Wilber says, but it says nothing about the validity of what he says; to think so is to commit the genetic fallacy.
And third, with Wilber more than other thinkers there is this idolization and idealization. And my psychological analysis brings him down to earth and says he's motivatedin his unique waylike the rest of us. It even makes sense using Wilber's own psychograph. That he'd have different developmental issues and challenges on different developmental levels. But people get confused. That Rilke, Heidegger or Eliot acted like bastards doesn't have to detract from their work. (I am not saying Wilber is like these three, I'm just taking some well-known examples of great creators who's personal lives didn't live up to their creations.)
Of course, Wilber's case might be different because built into his system is the idea that the level of the thinker plays a role in their capacity to understand and create the world they are elaborating. So Wilber and others need to be of a high altitude to create and comprehend an integral system. I think this is terribly wrong, as I argued in "An 'Intellectual Tragedy'" and Bald Ambition, Chapter 3 [on Vision-logic]. But according to Wilber's own theory, if he isn't the person he says he is, it can threaten the legitimacy of his theory. I think that commits the genetic fallacy, but that's what he says.
What have been your psychological reasons for criticizing Wilber? (and why does it matter to know these?)
That would take a long paper to answer. One aspect is that Wilber and I are opposites. He's a somebody and I'm a nobody who wishes I were a somebody. So by bringing Wilber down I can gain, or thought I could gain, some degree of somebodyness. The whole Oedipal game. At the time I started examining Wilber I lived unconsciously on what I've named, through therapy, the somebody to nobody spectrum. The goal was to be an intellectual somebody and avoid being an intellectual nobody. Since then I've brought this narrow value-system to consciousness and am wrestling with liberating myself from it. While it seems ridiculously obvious, I've learned there is a third position off the "either somebody or nobody spectrum" and that is being myself. But as with people's core issues, they're hard to discern for the person who's unconsciously enacting them, even though stating them aloud makes them seem so obviously misguided.
Wilber has great confidence in his views and asserts them confidently. I experience an initial inspiration when I think of something new and then immediately doubt its significance, originality and imperviousness to counter-argument. It's debilitating, but it does mean better vetting of the ideas. He's grandiose and I'm cautious about what can be legitimately asserted, so his personality gnaws at me and offends my sensibility.
Anger is another psychological reason. Wilber gave me the opportunity to defend my view by criticizing him. Criticism has a lot of anger in it.
Building intellectual systems isn't the way to go. I think we need to emphasize and examine how people in social settings create knowledge and their world together. The more democratic the interaction in the political, economic and intellectual spheres the better.
It matters to know these psychological reasons because if and when rational debate runs out or is stalled there are still non-rational reasons we believe as we do, and if our goal is to understand not only what we believe but why we believe, then we should also examine these non-rational reasons. Why is it that rational argumentation convinces so infrequently? Because people believe for other-than-rational reasons. So, once reason-giving has run out, let's look at these other reasons for believing.
A "DIVINE COMEDY"?
How did you do all that research? Did you read Lovejoy, Derrida, Nagarjuna studies etc? -->
Sometimes I read some of the original sources, but sometimes just the secondary literature. I would read just enough so that I could speak responsibly about a topic. Since Wilber ranges over so many topics I didn't have to be a specialist. So Wilber relies heavily on Lovejoy, but I knew Lovejoy wrote seventy years ago and there must be a large debate about what he said, both at the time he said it and since. So I did a literature search and there were all the articles critical of Lovejoy. I had read Derrida and I knew that Wilber's interpretation was the opposite of what he said. With Nagarjuna, I found while browsing in a used bookstore Andrew Tuck's book on the history of the many differing Western interpretations of Nagarjuna.
Since academia, especially the social sciences and the humanities, consists centrally of debates, I knew that most of what Wilber was claiming were orienting generalizations, or taken-for-granted knowledge, were actually debatable. Since I have a critical mindset, I get intuitions when people make claims that don't sit right with me. Then I just bring that intuition to greater consciousnessBuddhist mindfulness helps with thatand usually can formulate a counter-argument that was embedded in that intuition. This is another example of the psychology of belief. We know experientially or emotionally that something's wrong. Then, when we delve into that inchoate feeling and can put words to it, we formulate and bring to consciousness our previously unconscious worldview.
Can you explain why you think Wilber's system is Organicist, Comedy and Conservative (an not one of the other categories)? Is Ken Wilber's system a "Divine Comedy"?
Well that would be a recapitulation of part of Chapter Ten [Psychological Analysis of Wilber's Beliefs]. Seems like people could just read it if interested. Hayden White's great work on the value-laden nature of narrative and so all history writing is another aspect of the psychological basis of belief. That aspect of our worldview which is our belief about where wepeople, animals, the earth, the universeare all heading or should head is a story or narrative. So if White is right our beliefs about history are organized by a plot type and so a value-system. And a value system is intertwined with our needs, desires and woundsour whole psychological life. It shows the value-laden choices that structure Wilber's conception of the Kosmos and imply that other value-laden choices will yield a different Kosmic vision.
As I write in Bald Ambition (p. 238):
By delineating Wilber's particular type of history-writing I undercut his claim to greatest inclusiveness or universality. The narrative form by its very nature imposes upon the historian choices of which he or she is usually unaware. Wilber likes to think that discoveries in the sciences impel him and us to adopt a vision like his own, but, as White shows, this is not the case. The facts do not tell the historian what mode of emplotment to adopt; it is a value judgment. Wilber's selection of the Comedic mode, and his avoidance of the Tragic and Satirical modes, results from his need to tell a positive and progressive story of history, not from the determining weight of historical facts.
How has the book been received, any reviews? - what is your response to those reactions?
Well, Andy Smith's early review [Contextualizing Ken, 2004] was excellent and very encouraging. I've been heartened by Michel Bauwens, the man behind the P2P movement, who loves it. Alan Kazlev and Geoffrey Falk were positive about it. And there was that guy, Frank Visser - who you may have heard of - who's been exceptionally supportive while, I think, not wholly agreeing with it. There was that early negative review by Jan Brouwer [Review of Jeff Meyerhoff's Book on Wilber, 2004], but I thought his criticisms weak. I used to get emails about it, mostly positive, but some harshly negative. Of course Wilber sort of made reference to it in his notorious blog post, but his criticisms were either mistaken or weak. Mark Edwards had the strongest criticisms [Meyerhoff, Wilber and the Post-formal Stages], which I responded to, I thought, well [What's Worthy of Inclusion?]. I appreciated Mark taking it seriously from an opposing perspective and making criticisms that scared me and really made me think.
How do you see the pervasive"silence" around the book (from Wilber or the integral folks)?
I guess it is a "silence", but I kind of assume that people don't want to deal with material that undermines their view. People are very invested in their view, their personal identities are intertwined with it. That's what I explore in the psychology of belief chapter [A Different Path]. I'm used to being ignored, so it felt natural. But the avoidance seems so obvious, I wonder how people can maintain their belief-system. Wilber said that my points are easily rebuttable. So that would be a great project to assign to an underling: "Destroy, uh, 'transcend and include' Meyerhoff." But no one does it. I guess it's masochistic, but wouldn't somebody out there please destroy me?
Did your appearance at the Integral Theory conference of 2010 change this attitude?
Not that I can tell, although I was exhilarated by my performance at the Critics of Wilber panel. I had never spoken as an expert in front of a big group and enjoyed hogging the microphone and showing off. But I think I made really good points. I was honored when Roger Walsh and others thanked me for my comments. But after I got back from the conference it was (silent) business as usual. Although I just submitted a proposal to deliver a paper at a conference and the guy organizing itan academicwrote back and said: "Your work on Ken Wilber is quite significant." I was flabbergasted that he'd even heard of Wilber, let alone me. But that kind of thing is very rare.
Why is there, or so it seems to me, a taboo in the integral community on reading or even mentioning Bald Ambition?
It's too threatening. If it's true that the people around Wilber care a lot about what developmental level they're on ("I'm 2nd tier," "you're green"), then they're not going to want to tackle real intellectual criticism. In fact, if their self-valuation is dependent upon the theory and justifies, in their own minds, their superior or cutting-edge status, then they'd have even more disinclination to have the theory threatened. Their self-worth is more explicitly tied into the theory. Although, I was impressed with Sean Hargens and Mark Forman. They seem like good guys who want to do good work to get integral studies some academic respectability. Mark Forman especially is an impressively grounded person. His exchange at the last Integral Theory conference with Marc Gafni was a classic display of conflicting intellectual and personality types.
How do you like your reputation of integral's official "bad critic"?
Well, Geoffrey Falk is probably the baddest critic around. I tend to like being the bad guy. As I said I'm a big fan of two great debunkers: Noam Chomsky and Richard Rorty. But I'm mostly alone in my intellectual work and would like to have some intellectual companions. My personality does not attract people to me and I don't create enduring intellectual relationships. So there's not much benefit to being the "bad critic." I'm intellectually dyspeptic, but socially I can be quite delightful.
What's your response to one critic's comment during the Wyatt Earp episode: if Wilber is so worthless, "pathetic", "misguided" where his words why bother?
Wilber isn't worthless, he's just wrong a lot. It's worthwhile to debunk him because he's sold a lot of books and has some followers. If we care about reason and the proper use of scholarship and evidence, they must be defended against those who misuse them and say they're not. But I shouldn't have been the one to do it because it wasn't my fight. I should have chosen someone more significant so that my work would be more significant. Like my choice to study sociology in graduate school, I made a quick decision that had long-term consequences and chose wrongly.
Wilber once wrote that most of his critics are just Wilber-wannabies...
So what's the point? Regardless of a critic's motivation you still have to confront the arguments. We all have various good and bad motivations when we debate, so what? The be-a-somebody yearning is not unique to me. It's the subject of Harold Bloom's Anxiety of Influence and the basis of Oedipal struggles and sublimation. What is each younger generation doing but wrestling with its relationship with the older generation and trying to take over.
So Wilber's views are not factually based after all, but you also state there are no plain facts? seems contradictory?
A "plain fact" is an undisputed fact, not simply the way the world is. Facts should not be thought of as transparent representations of the way the world is in itself. They should be thought of as what we are currently agreeing upon in order to discuss other things that we have some disagreement about. In the factual assertion "The cat is on the mat" there's (usually) nothing at stake, so no dispute. We can call that a "plain fact."
My issue in responding to Wilber was whether there are important, uncontested - because undebatedfacts. These undebated facts would be Wilber's orienting generalizations. I showed that these "facts" were not "plain" facts, but contested assertions. That we have a soul was a "plain fact" when Christianity was the reigning worldview. Now it is mixed, part figurative self-understanding, part literal description of the nature of a human being. Even Wilber's inside and outside and interior and exterior are socially and historically constructed divisions, not ontological categories that limn the nature of existence.
Is it, after reading Bald Ambition, still "ok" to hold integral beliefs (as long as you are conscious about why you need them)?
I'm arguing that there is a psychological basis to everyone's believingor at least to all our believing that we want to defend rationally (as opposed to faith-based). So you could ask: Can any of us still hold our beliefs given the psychological causes of our believing? And the answer is: Yes, of course, you can't not hold your beliefs. We're attached to some of our beliefs for non-rational reasons and they can't be easily changed. (Although there is the interesting case of the Ancient Greek philosophical school of Pyrrhonian Skepticism in which the practitioner becomes convinced that any sufficiently important issue cannot be resolved through rational argumentation and so suspends belief in order to attain a state of tranquility.)
The bulk of Bald Ambition is a rational, critical examination of the validity of the arguments and evidence of Wilber's integral theory. His Integral Theory is found wanting. To continue believing it you need to respond to those criticisms, if you care about rational argumentation; or to ignore them if you just want a belief-system that satisfies your needs. But there are other integral approaches that are better defended than Wilber's, like Andy Smith's. His integral theory can stand toe-to-toe with academic and scholarly results and argue its case.
How shall/should integral proceed in academia?
Well, that's the topic of the paper I wrote for Sean Hargens' next anthology [True But Partial: Essential Critiques of Integral Theory]. I describe some small areas of academia that integral studies could try to ally with like Interdisciplinarity and Big History. But the tone of the article is that the chance of any acceptance by academia of integral studies is slim. But if institution-building and politics works then Sean Hargens's and other's conferences, journal and deal with SUNY Press is the way to go. But if you want integral work that sustains serious academic scrutiny you should champion Andy Smith's work. He's not afraid of counter-evidence and counter-argument. And while the range of Wilber's knowledge is staggering, the way that Andy Smith knows what he knows is better than the way that Wilber knows what he knows.
Do you follow Wilber's latest works? Does it confirm your thesis?
Yes, I've read most of Integral Spirituality and the Excerpts for the perpetually forthcoming Kosmic Karma book on the Shambhala site. I like the change he's made to a more radically perspectival understanding in which the arising developmental edge actually creates (enacts), in some way, a new reality. I like that way of thinking because it's radically constructivist, but my intuition tells me it's problematic intellectually. But, of course, any big or deep-enough view of things is going to ultimately not hold together rationally.
When any of us pushes our thinking to the limits of thought we contradict ourselves. We learn that from Western philosophy and Zen. I think Wilber still relies on SES for the validity of the four quadrant model although now he doesn't use the term orienting generalizations, perhaps because, as Wilber said referring to me, "some critic attacked the shit out of orienting generalizations." Then he asked if that critic (me) had heard of Integral Methodological Pluralism (IMP), implying that the old methodology had been superseded by IMP. But IMP doesn't do the work that orienting generalizations did. Wilber says that now he has eight different methodologies in the eight different zones.
But that still doesn't solve the problem of the interminable debates of the people applying those methodologies in those zones. This is the kind of sloppy thinking that a smart guy like Wilber shouldn't do. I think it's because, in him, ego defense edges out scholarly integrity. Yet that could also be why he can be such a swashbuckling creative thinker.