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 Tribute to
Ken Wilber

Anatomy of a
Love-Hate Relationship

Frank Visser

A Tribute to Ken Wilber

I can actually still resonate with most of the things said during this tribute session.

I recently watched the A Tribute to Ken Wilber video, mailed to Premium Members of Integral Life, which was compiled during the last (December 2012) WhatNext conference in Boulder. (See here the announcement of this event by Wilber, where he humorously remarks that it will be embarrassing for him to be the object of so much praise.) A host of current and former close friends and colleagues of Wilber expressed their deep admiration, devotion, and yes, most often their love for him as their teacher, mentor, ex-husband or... guru, illustrating all this with a sprinkle of anecdotes.

A Tribute to Ken Wilber
"All I am sure of is that I will make
a total ass out of myself... and who
wants to miss something like that, right?"

If there was ever any doubt that Wilber serves as a guru figure for many of his readers, this event nailed it. Most express their admiration in terms of "I became a better person because of you" or "I instantly knew this is what I wanted to do for the rest of my life" or "your ideas have illuminated everything for me". Of course, in an intimate and personal event like this, there is every reason to be generous, and primarily focus on the things Wilber has accomplished through his writings and organisations. All of the participants testified to the strong and lasting impact Wilber has had on their minds and hearts, upon discovering his work and often for the rest of their lives.

Participants who voice their feelings of gratitude for Ken Wilber were, in order of appearance: Stuart Davis (who served as the host), Sam Bercholz, Jack Crittenden, Roger Walsh, Frances Vaughan, Jeff Salzman, John Mackey, Father Thomas Keating, Andrew Cohen, Alex and Allyson Grey, Cynthia Bourgeault, Diane Musho Hamilton, Terry Patten, Tony Robbins, Larry Dossey, Lana Wachowski, Sean Esbjörn-Hargens, Marci Davis, Robert Richards, Corey deVos, Clint Fuhs, Dustin Diperna, Nicole Fegley, Kelly Sosan Bearer, Colin Bigelow, Brian Berger, Genpo Roshi, Alan Leslie Combs, Robb Smith, Barbara Dossey, Deepak Chopra, Robert MacNaughton, Decker Cunov and last but not least... Kermit the Frog! About half of these people I have met in person, either briefly or several times, and these contacts have been very dear to me.

I can actually still resonate with most of the things said during this tribute session. I too, have been deeply impressed by Wilber's person and work for about twenty years, starting in 1982 when I stumbled upon No Boundary during my studies in the psychology of religion. It is only in the past decade or so that I have expressed second thoughts about the validity of some of his ideas, and his appalling behavior towards his critics. I still remember how Up from Eden and its companion The Atman Project electrified me and made me feel that psychology, and in its wake the social sciences, could embrace spirituality and enlightenment in a sound and scientific way. Translating both The Atman Project and A Brief History of Everything into Dutch was a dream come true.

And also on a personal level, my two visits to Wilber's home in Boulder in 1997 stand out as highlights in my life. Everything said about his humor, his generosity and his sociable character when meeting him in person is true. My hopes were high back then, for a integral revolution in psychology and society, and a firm footing of mysticism and approaches to consciousness on a scientific basis, with the help of Wilber's models. I could also tell anecdotes about the dozens of faxes I exchanged with Ken between 1995 and 1997, in which we discussed everything under the sun in the light of transpersonal/integral studies.

In my opinion, now and then, integral philosophy—or at least Wilber's version of it— deserved to be closely studied, and evaluated by competent specialists. In Ken Wilber: Thought as Passion (SUNY 2003) I concluded my overview of Wilber's intellectual phase Wilber-4:

The search for an integral view of reality that is as complete as possible is far from over. Yet Wilber has given us all kinds of ideas about how such an integral view might look. Hopefully the subjects he has touched on will inspire many people not only to apply these ideas in a practical way in their own lives, but also to reflect on these ideas to some extent. If the Wilber debate were to become simply "the world according to Ken Wilber," however fascinating and edifying that might be, it might well mean that Wilber would ultimately be interred in the gallery of the great, undoubtedly surrounded by a multitude of followers. Yet someone of Wilber's stature deserves more than that. The ideas that he has presented deserve to be examined in any academic and social discussions of culture, politics, religion and mental health. (p. 214)

The response from integral corners to Thought as Passion was lukewarm-to-negative, and soon rumor had it that "it was nice, but it did not include Wilber-5". Obviously this was impossible, since it was a translation of a Dutch book published in 2001, and written between 1997 and 1999. There was no Wilber-5 (Wilber's so-called "post-metaphysical" phase) on the horizon at that time, nor have these views been fully fleshed out even a decade later, except in an appendix ("Integral Post-Metaphysics") of Integral Spirituality (2006), the last theoretical book Wilber wrote. (The long awaited volume 2 of his Kosmos-trilogy, which is titled Sex, Karma, Creativity, and which is currently in its editing phase at Shambhala, will hopefully shed more light on this.)

Several things caused me to change my mind about Ken Wilber, as I have documented at Integral World over the years.

Several things caused me to change my mind about Ken Wilber, as I have documented at Integral World over the years. David Lane's early critique of Wilber's views on evolution ("Wilber and the Misunderstanding of Evolution"), written in 1996, has never been answered in public, neither by Wilber or by any of his senior students. This essay inspired me to do more research in this area, resulting in my ITC paper "The 'Spirit of Evolution' Reconsidered". Again, no substantial response whatsoever from the integral community was composed that I am aware of. Now that the label "evolutionary" has replaced "integral" it seems a matter of intellectual integrity to me to face this type of criticism—it cannot just be dismissed as "flatland reductionism". Or with phrases such as: you cannot criticize a multi-dimensional model with a one-dimensional argument from science.

Starting with the formation of Integral Institute around 2000, the emphasis moved from critically evaluating integral ideas to teaching and selling them, to a new audience of youngsters, that were eagerly served by Wilber with popular versions of his ideas. Very soon, the color-speak of Spiral Dynamics, adopted and transformed by Wilber, was all the craze. If you criticized Wilber, you were "green", and if you agreed with him, you were at least "yellow" and perhaps aspiring to "turquoise" (various sub-stages of development). There was—at least to my taste—a huge dose of glamour around these activities: the hip Integral Naked audio site, with its emphasis on pop stars, artists and celebrities, became a form of infotainment, without any critical edge. The Integral University, which never materialized, but which was used as promissory answer to all critical questions ("wait till IU is live, then we will go into all these questions"), was an unrealistic project from the start. Elaborate conceptual reflections by Mark Edwards and others posted on Integral World were ignored for years. But hey, Presidents of both democratic and republican persuasion were reading Ken Wilber, so all would be well with the world very soon! For sure we have integral journals and conferences now, and much work is done to widen the scope of integral studies and give Wilber's proposals hands and feet in the real world. But these initiatives more often than not take the Wilber perspective for granted.

There seems to be much truth in Sean Esbjörn-Hargens opinion, expressed during his keynote opening talk of the last, 2013 Integral Theory Conference, ("The Meta-Praxis of Defining and Developing Integral Theory", slide 33) that Wilber has his "primary strengths" (the I-domain of psychology and spirituality), "secondary strengths" (the We-domain of culture and politics) and "tertiary strengths" (the it-domain of science, i.e. physics, biology, complexity). Perhaps "tertiary strength" is an euphemism here for weakness. (Interestingly, the two integral thinkers featured during this conference, Roy Bashkar and Edgar Morin, were considered to be strong in these weaker areas of Wilber, respectively the We-domain of Critical Philosophy and It-domain of Complexity Science). Seeing the Wilber corpus as containing both brilliant insights, reasonable ideas and less than tenable positions, is a good start towards a nuanced assessment of Wilberian philosophy.

It turns out to be extremely difficult to get rid of your Wilber Complex—the affliction characterized by an identification with how Wilber sees the world and the belief that everything Wilber says is true, because he has read so many books, or he writes so persuasively, or he is just a genius, or he is enlightened, or... (fill in your favorite).

The Philosophy of Wow!

So my NO is as strong as my YES, when it comes to the appreciation of Ken Wilber's philosophy.

On the very first page of Sex, Ecology, Spirituality Wilber contrasts the materialistic, mechanistic view of science—mockingly called by Wilber the "philosophy of oops", which he considers to be "about as infantile a response as the human condition could possibly offer"—with his own spiritual outlook on life, which has been inspired by the wisdom of the ages. It tells us that "something else is going on, something quite other than oops":

It is flat-out strange that something - that anything - is happening at all. There was nothing, then a Big Bang, then here we all are. This is extremely weird.

To Schelling's burning question, "Why is there something rather than nothing?," there have always been two general answers. The first might be called the philosophy of "oops." The universe just occurs, there is nothing behind it, it's all ultimately accidental or random, it just is, it just happens - oops! The philosophy of oops, no matter how sophisticated and adult it may on occasion appear - its modern names and numbers are legion, from positivism to scientific materialism, from linguistic analysis to historical materialism, from naturalism to empiricism - always comes down to the same basic answer, namely, "Don't ask."

The question itself (Why is anything at all happening? Why am I here?) - the question itself is said to be confused, pathological, nonsensible, or infantile. To stop asking such silly or confused questions is, they all maintain, the mark of maturity, the sign of growing up in this cosmos.

I don't think so. I think the "answer" these "modern and mature" disciplines give - namely, oops! (and therefore, "Don't ask!") - is about as infantile a response as the human condition could possibly offer.

The other broad answer that has been tendered is that something else is going on: behind the happenstance drama is a deeper or higher or wider pattern, or order, or intelligence. There are, of course, many varieties of this "Deeper Order": the Tao, God, Geist, Maat, Archetypal Forms, Reason, Li, Mahamaya, Braham, Rigpa. And although these different varieties of the Deeper Order certainly disagree with each other at many points, they all agree on this: the universe is not what it appears. Something else is going on, something quite other than oops.... (p. 3)

Other than most New Age or alternative thinkers Wilber does take the trouble to include the sciences in his conversation—though primarily the social sciences. However, when it comes to a true confrontation of insights from these two worlds, Wilber often resorts to a caricature of science to promote what I would like to call now his own "philosophy of wow!" In defence he says he merely wants to highlight the "extraordinary capacity of creative emergence that is intrinsic to the universe"—conveniently ignoring the very advances science has made to clarify exactly that. For Wilber, and like minded authors such as Chopra (who has called Wilber his mentor), creativity—as a category in itself, almost Divine—rules the cosmos, something ordinary science cannot understand.

Chopra and Dawkins in debate
Deepak Chopra and Richard Dawkins in fierce debate

Deepak Chopra, however at least has the guts to confront his opponents in public, as for example during a recent dialogue with Richard Dawkins for a Mexican organization called City of the Ideas ("Dangerous Ideas", November 9th, 2013). Here we see the deep abyss between two worldviews, one representing science proper, and one claiming to have deeper, "spiritual" answers, even providing "scientific" proof for them, mostly from the complex and fuzzy field of quantum physics.

The Chopra-Dawkins video shows how difficult such a debate is, when it is unclear what definition of science is used (Chopra: "all science is metaphor") or what is considered to be a valid object for scientific study in the first placel. Subjectivity is usually taken out of the scientific equation, but what about the study of subjectivity as a phenomenon itself? Not to mention the observer-effect in quantum physics, which Chopra often uses as an argument against objectivist science. I am sure Wilber would side with Chopra (and Sheldrake, for that matter) here in his defense of the interior dimensions of consciousness, which science seems to ignore completely or at least evade (Dawkins: "I wouldn't even know how to phrase the question"). Chopra is currently crusading against what he sees as the "militant skepticism" of reductionist science, see his three part Huffington Post articles of November 4, November 13 and November 18.)

What I would have loved to see is a platform in which the intention is not to teach and sell "integral stuff" to students, but to really and impartially evaluate the various claims made by Wilber in his works about science, truth, consciousness, in the most rigorously possible way. Has Wilber's magnum opus Sex, Ecology, Spirituality every been competently reviewed other than in Meyerhoff's book-length Bald Ambition? Have we seen any expert reviews of Wilber's early works such as The Atman Project and Up from Eden? Where Habermas was willing to debate with Derrida in public over a long time, Wilber never leaves his comfort zone and his students are left to trust him on his words, when he proclaims his views on postmodernism, evolutionary theory, or any other major intellectual field.

Ken Wilber tells his audience at the end of the tribute session, that there's now evidence and proof and tests that substantiate his integral philosophy. That, however, has been contested by many outside the integral community, many of whom have published their views on Integral World. Distance can be both a disadvantage and an advantage. But reflecting on Wilber's corpus of ideas from a non-devotional point of view seems to me a necessity that always needs to be stressed and nurtured.

So my NO is as strong as my YES, when it comes to the appreciation of Ken Wilber's philosophy. The YES was fuelled during my first reading of Wilber's works in the eighties and nineties of the last century. The NO was gaining traction during attempts to validate this philosophy in an integral culture that increasingly directed all its efforts towards spreading a practical philosophy of life and an integral gospel for a world in trouble. Valuable as these activities are in itself, they can never replace critical evaluation. We need an Integral Fact-Checking Department.

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