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.


Stepping on
Integral TOEs

Reply to Corbett

Frank Visser

Stepping on toes

Joe Corbett's reply to my "Why Integral Theory is not a Theory of Everything" demonstrated a healthy spirit of critical debate, for which I would like to thank him. Not many take the trouble to respond to the points I am trying to make again and again on Integral World. He objects to my loose treatment of the I/We/It tripartite model used by Wilber and his students, in contrast to the good ol' four quadrants, in which meaningful distinctions can be made that tend to get lost in simpler models. He also questions my suggestion that integral theory is out of touch with physics, by arguing that the four fundamental forces of Nature can easily be accommodated within these very four quadrants. Further, Corbett defends Wilber's liberal use of the metaphors for evolution such as Eros or Spirit-in-action, "as a descriptive term for the expansionary processes in the universe... where no one, including the greatest physicists, biologists, or psychologists, really knows all of what's going on".

In this situation, we have to make do with metaphors:

Although metaphors and other linguistic tropes are always incomplete descriptions of the phenomena they point to, sometimes they are the best we have at given points in our understanding. And at other times, it's just better to understand the meanings of life as more than a set of sums leading to the number 42, or 23, even if that means sacrificing some technical details.

What is more, Wilber's whole work might best be understood in a metaphorical way—to expect otherwise is "reductionistic" and "materialistic", says Corbett:

Granted, Wilber may be no expert on evolution, and some of his understandings of it may be flawed, but I don't think his TOE is really meant to be a technical theory of everything. Rather, his TOE is a visionary synthesis of how things may be in a general and as yet incompletely understood way. His is a roadmap, not a technical manual.

We will take these three points one by one.


These two models are not just interesting in a theoretical sense, but also shape our perception and condition our actions.

In some of his essays on Integral World, Corbett has objected to Wilber's frequent reduction of the four quadrants model to the tripartite division into I, We and It. Not only for theoretical reasons, but because it obscured an omission in integral theory spotted by him. He feels that de element of social Justice is missing from the popular trinity of Truth, Beauty and Goodness, and the four quadrant model is more apt to give a place on the map to this important fourth dimension. The distinction between culture and society gets lost, when both are subsumed under one collective dimension, as I did in my essay, or when society as such is forced to fit into the class of material It(s).

In an older essay of mine, published in 2006, "Some Notes on Personalism", I too commented on Wilber's tendency to prefer the I-We-It scheme, based on these three universal pronouns, to the four quadrant model, in his online and offline popular writings. These two models are not just interesting in a theoretical sense, but in my opinion, they also shape our perception and condition our actions. Common objections raised at that time were that the interpersonal You-dimension was lacking in the I/We/It-scheme, and that using the caption "It" for such rich dimensions as society and politics is a bit restrictive. In this context, Mark Edwards' early attempts at a more "personalistic" version of the quadrants in his 7-part "Through AQAL Eyes" (2002-2003) and his 3-part "The Depth of the Exteriors" (2003-2004) series is still worthy to be studied carefully.

I would even venture an interpretation of Wilber's tripartite scheme that has resulted in a strained relationship to those who are not in agreement with this view of life. It makes a lot of difference if we unconsciously map the world around us in a I/We/It-scheme, or use the more personalistic I/You/He-She-It (singular) or We/You/They-Its (plural).



I, It

I, You, He/She, It


We, Its

We, You, They, Its

In the first case, everything outside the boundary of I (Wilber) and We (the integral community) is "thingified"—and treated as such. It can, for example, be labeled as Mean Green without further ado. As I recalled in that early essay on personalism, an early acronym of the four quadrant model was FQAL—for "Four Quadrants, All Levels"—but this was abandoned because it sounded too much like "fuck you all". Be that as it may, and I am sure this will all be taken in good humor, there's a whole discussion waiting to be explored about these theoretical alternatives. In the first case, a group mentality is cultivated, where in the second case, the personhood of all parties is acknowledged.

Interestingly, it is all a matter of distance or nearness, as I described in that essay—actually of hearing distance. We can speak to those who are relatively near to us (You)—we are, so to speak, on speaking terms with them. But we can only speak about those (Him-Her-They) who are too far from us to be heard, or to make ourselves heard by them. And even in the Us vs. Them dichotomy, both parties are still seen as persons, and will never be reduced to It(s).

That said, in my essay about Integral Theory not being a Theory of Everything, I had a much more innocent goal in mind: differentiate broadly between the individual (psychology and spirituality) and the collective (including both culture and society) as a rough distinction within the Wilber corpus. Both personalistic dimensions are furthermore to be contrasted to the "materialistic" and "reductionistic" dimension of matter, for which the term It(s) seems appropriate. That's not to say that matter and life might not be conscious in some sense, but that current science works with such a paradigm and seems to be very successful in solving its problems. In that sense, Wilber's reflections on spirituality and psychology seem more valid to me than his ideas about politics and society, and those in turn more defensible than his reporting on current advances in science.

So yes, I am all for pointing out any possible omissions in the integral worldview, as Joe Corbett is trying to do with his focus on justice. In one of the rare essays by Ken Wilber posted on Integral World called "On the Mean Memes in General", he defended himself against the accusation (made among others by the late social activist Bill Moyer) that he had written much more about the Mean Green Meme (MGM), than about the Mean Orange Meme (MOM). Rather surprisingly, he singled out the Mean Orange Meme as the "nastiest of the nasty memes":

The MOM is the global disaster of modernity (as the MGM is the disaster of postmodernity and the MBM was the disaster of medieval premodernity, etc.). I have written extensively on this MOM pathology, which actually underlies all of the other pathologies being criticized (from global capitalism to exploitation). As I have tried to make very clear, flatland (MOM) is the single greatest pathology on the planet right now, and has been for three centuries; the other mean memes are still present, and equally insidious in their own fun ways, but by sheer dint of its power and reach, the MOM gets the prize for nastiest of the nasty memes.

Exactly how a focus on sensory modalities only, leading to materialism and the world of flatland It(s), gives rise to global capitalism and exploitation is left unexplained. Not exactly a, say, Chomskian analysis of the impact of the US economic system on the rest of the world. And even then, Wilber has explored this shadow side of modernity mostly from a epistemological and not a political-economic perspective, such as given by Moyer and Corbett. For some reason, left-wing politics has never received a good press among US integral leading spokesmen.


The general point of my essay was, however, that integral theory is out of touch with science, when it comes to the area of physics and biology. Especially when Wilber is in his freewheeling conference mode, he is fond of painting a picture of reality in which a cosmic "creative advance into novelty" is at the root of all forms of material and biological complexity. This is a perfect stage setting for an Integral Spiritual Experience seminar, but wholly unsuitable to be used in the content of scientific discourse. And more often than not, Wilber is mixing these two discourses in one and the same book.

That the AQAL model, when appropriately understood, can accommodate all of the four known forces of physics, as suggested by Corbett, is something I personally find hard to swallow. I should, perhaps have contrasted these four forces of physics (gravitational, electromagnetic, strong nuclear, and weak nuclear) to the four domains of the fysiosphere, the biosphere, the noosphere and the theosphere from Wilber's opus magnum Sex, Ecology, Spirituality (1995). And all of the four forces of physics belong straight to the lowest of these, the fysiosphere. Where reductionistic science is content to cover this fysiosphere, Wilber attempts to embrace the three super-physical spheres as well—of life, mind and Spirit. In doing so, he has to convince his readers that life, mind and Spirit are irreducible to matter.

Corbett, however relates the four forces of nature not so much to levels, realms or ontological worlds, but to quadrants. In his view, as stated in his Flying Saucer essay:

The integral AQAL model provides us with an ontological framework for everything that exists because the four quadrants correspond in exact conformity to the four forces of the universe: gravity, the weak and strong nuclear forces, and electro-magnetism.






Line (space)




Volume (cube)







Exact conformity? I can understand why the Upper-Right quadrant of objects and bodies would match the gravitational force. But how exactly do the other quadrants match the three other forces of physics? He elaborates:

Gravity corresponds to the upper-right quadrant, a physical force of embodiment, singular form, objective weight, concrete empirical matter in the natural sciences, mother earth, and the body itself. It is also the domain in which space is extended beyond the singularity by the one-dimensional line into infinity.

The weak-force corresponds to the upper-left quadrant, an interior force of individual radiation and disintegration, lightness of being (air), subjective creativity and mutation in the arts. It is also the domain in which there is an expansion of the line into the width of consciousness, where the two-dimensional plane of the sky and the surface horizon of awareness is born.

The strong-nuclear force corresponds to the lower-left quadrant, also an interior, 'hidden' force, but now as a deep, intimate, and strong bond of matter in its collective unity facilitated by the binding properties of water, catalytic and not easily broken, where the inter-subjective relations of love and loyalty are nurtured and fused, the core substance (or volume) that makes life and the universe full and meaningful.

Finally, electro-magnetism corresponds to the lower-right quadrant, an exterior force not of embodied form but of shape, structure, and angular (or inter-objective) relations. It is a repulsive-attractive force of power (positional leverage) and energy (money) that gives shape to the myriad large-scale structures of the universe and human societies alike. The transformative quality of fire is its characteristic, and that is the fourth dimension of time, or the dynamic (changing) relations between things.

It is beyond me what the weak interaction, which "is responsible for both the radioactive decay and nuclear fusion of subatomic particles", has to do with interior consciousness. Or how the strong interaction, which "ensures the stability of ordinary matter, in confining the elementary particles quarks into hadrons such as the proton and neutron, the largest components of the mass of ordinary matter", relates to intersubjectivity. Or, for that matter, how the electromagnetic force, which "has innumerable physical instances including the interaction of electrically charged particles and the interaction of uncharged magnetic force fields with electrical conductors", can be matched to the dimension of society.

I guess I lack the capacity for this type of analogical reasoning.


Is there any justification for having the facts of evolution wrong, when one wants to build a Theory of Everything?

The third objection of Corbett to my critique of Wilber is more relevant, I think. Is Wilber a visionary, who should be judged by his capacity to inspire people, provide meaning and purpose to their lives, and far beyond technical details and reductionistic considerations? Have I actually misjudged him over the years by pointing out his factual errors, while ignoring the larger integral vision he is trying to communicate? I suppose more readers share this sentiment.

There are metaphors that stimulate research and understanding and there are those that hinder and preclude it. If vitalism had won the day, the structure of DNA would never have been discovered. After all, life was a mysterious force? If Sheldrake had won the day, the Evo-Devo revolution would never have happened. For things get their form through morphogenetic fields? No need to look deeper in the mechanism behind this process. When Wilber says the heavy elements have been formed by the "creative advance into novelty" present throughout the cosmos, this contributes precisely nothing to our understanding. Fact of the matter is that we do understand how these elements formed, by painstaking research and hard thinking.

But terms like Eros or emergence could be useful as descriptions rather than explanations, one could say. "They are the best we have at given points in our understanding", Corbett declares. But again and again, these metaphors cloud our understanding. What use is it, to say that Carbon, Oxygen and Nitrogen came about through a process of emergence, from an initial state where only Hydrogen existed? What's the added value of using these metaphors, other than that it increases our feelings of mystery? Doesn't gaining real insight into how these elements came about through stellar and supernova nucleosynthesis and through human effort (as far as the heaviest elements are concerned) make Nature much more interesting and our theories much more informative?

Periodic table showing the origin of the elements.
Read this terrific article on Wikipedia. Where does that
leave our "creative advance into novelty"?

Corbett closes his reply by stating that Wilber's work is not to be treated as a technical manual but as a roadmap, to show us where we are going—one could say, personally, culturally and cosmically, using the I/We/It-scheme again. And yes, "Wilber may be no expert on evolution, and some of his understandings of it may be flawed", he concedes, which I see as the understatement of the century. Wilber's understanding of evolutionary theory is so fundamentally flawed, in my opinion, that pointing to its metaphorical value doesn't help. Is there any justification for having the facts of evolution wrong, when one wants to build a Theory of Everything—especially when evolution is one of its central metaphors?

It is better to know the meaning of life, than to see it as a collection of meaningless facts and numbers, Corbett muses. Wilber's claim, however, and this makes him quite unique among other authors, is that this meaning of life is bases on a wide reading in science. If Wilber's agenda had been only to be an inspirational or motivational writer, he would not have bothered at all to quote so extensively from the literature of science and philosophy as he has done. In fact, his stated goal has always been to make spirituality respectable from a scientific point of view.

As I said before, integral theory needs Neo-Darwinism to fail, to get its own theory of Eros going in the first place. In my opinion, Wilber's reading of science is colored by a deep need to find an Eros in the Kosmos, which provides a sense of direction and purpose. Rather than going into the messy details of science, he tries to wow his readers into a grand scheme of the universe, in which they can feel at home. That's fine as a philosophy of life, but fails as an accurate picture of science.

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