An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber

powered by TinyLetter
Today is:
Publication dates of essays (month/year) can be found under "Essays".
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.


The mind-body problem

Helpful hints from integralism and perennialism

Frank Visser

Granted that the hard problem is hard, it nevertheless seems quite reasonable for a community to invest a fraction of its resources into trying to solve it... It is in the scientific spirit to try.
-- David Chalmers, "Moving Forward on the Problem of Consciousness", 1997.

In Integral Psychology (2000) Ken Wilber devotes a chapter to the infamous mind-body problem [1], offering both an assessment of the field of the philosophy of mind and some original suggestions for a solution. He explicitly refers to the work of David Chalmers [2], whose landmark publication The Conscious Mind (1996) has changed this field of the philosophy of mind entirely.

In this essay I will briefly summarize Wilber's point of view, and trace some lines of debate that have followed from it, to which I will add some personal ideas. I will also provide some pieces of the puzzle based on the perennialist traditions, which have been able to look at the nature of human consciousness from a slightly different angle. Where Wilber appeals to the mystical dimension as providing a framework to finally understand and solve -- or should we say "dissolve"? -- the mind-body problem, I feel this "vertical" dimension leaves out some essential insights. (Wilber discusses these more "horizontal" sources of information in his online paper about subtle energies, to which we will occasionally refer as well.) [3]

Psychic perception -- assuming that this is a valid form of cognition -- provides us with highly relevant data as to the nature of the human organism. Given the fondness for thought experiments in the philosophy of mind to direct our thought process (experiments which sometimes are of a fairly contrived nature, such as zombies or scientists who have grown up in a completely black-and-white world), it would be premature to dismiss a body of thought (and evidence) that at least claims to be based on empirical foundations. This essay is written in the (idle?) hope that Wilber's thoughts can more easily enter mainstrain debates in the philosophy of mind, when they are extracted, summarized and clarified from his numerous books on psychology and philosophy.

Wilber's take on the Mind-Body Problem

Perhaps the most interesting and thought provoking thing Wilber says about the mind-body problem is that it is not solvable -- for a reason. Generations of philosophers have tried to solve this problem, and have failed, often admitting their failure openly. This applies both to the materialists, who equate the human being with his body, and to the dualists, who believe in something beyond this body, whatever it may be. It appears to be a problem so much resistant to human understanding, that it almost seems to be a mystery. However, Wilber does not believe this problem to be unsolvable at all, for he makes a time honoured distinction between relative and absolute knowledge. Where the mind-body problem forms a major obstacle on the relative plane of knowledge, on the absolute plane, which can be reached in mystical contemplation, the real nature of the problem is fathomed.

This is not to say Wilber hides the subtleties of the mind-body problem in a shroud of mystification. In fact, he argues for a sustained attempt to describe the many facets of the problem as completely as possible, both as to its internal and its external dimensions. In his reply [4] to De Quincey's review of Integral Psychology [5], he lists these aspects as follows:

  1. For the average person "mind" often means my conceptual, willing and intentional self, and "body" often means my emotions, sensations, felt somatic sense and so on.
  2. For many cognitive scientists and various materialists, "mind" means "brain" and "body" means organism. In this usage, the brain is in the body or in the organism.
  3. For many philosophers, "mind" means "interiors" and body means "exeriors"-- or in general terms, mind means "subject" and body means "object", so that the mind-body problem ultimately means the relation between subject and object.

De Quincey has objected that there is no real "hard problem" in meanings (1) and (2), to use an expression coined by Chalmers, so bringing these into a discussion of the mind-body problem is confusing. It is the third meaning that refers to the "World Knot" of philosophy, as Shopenhauer called it [6]. However that may be, there's an interesting symmetry between meanings (1) and (2) that should not go unnoticed. Where meaning (2), which reduces the mind-body problem to the brain-body problem, externalizes the issue, so the problem evaporates into an empirical puzzle that can be solved by neurology; meaning (1) internalizes the issue, again, with the result that the mind-body problem loses its hard edges and turns out to be solved by developmental psychology, as Wilber optimistically opines. [7]

Different meanings of "the mind-body problem" according to Wilber

For now, we will continue to focus on meaning (3), the relationship between the internal, conscious mind and the external, observable body, as opposed to the merely "felt body" of phenomenology.

Integralism Sets the Agenda

The field of the philosphy of mind is by and large dominated by a third-person perspective on human consciousness and behavior. Representative of this approach is Daniel Dennett, whose Consciousness Explained is a good summary of this approach [8]. In Dennett's view, who jokingly calls himself a "third person absolutist", there is no "inside" to human consciousness, just an "outside" of behavior that can be studied in a scientific way. Non-scientific people assume that we all have consciousness and an inner life, that we can entertain thoughts and are moved by feelings, but this is just "folk psychology" a truly scientific psychology should seek to overcome. As he phrases it, we normally take an "intentional stance" towards human beings, as if they are conscious, but when we dig deeper to the physical causes of our behavior, we discover we are just machines with no intrinsic consciousness or intentionality. (For the same reason, we can take this intentional stance towards animals and chess computers as well).

This view might seem very counter-intuitive at first sight, but to its credit it must be conceded that it has proven to be a fruitful approach. Comparing human beings to computers has resulted in a host of research projects, concerning thought, memory, perception, etc., which together form the field of cognitive science.[9] However, there are limits to this approach as well. The subject of consciousness doesn't appear on the radar of objectivist science. Asking what type of object a subject is, is asking for the impossible. Therefore, I would want to reverse Dennett's phrase: it definitely makes sense to take an "mechanical stance" towards human beings, though we know fully well they are conscious.[10]

In the hard-nosed world of cognitive science, it is commonly believed that the burden of proof is on those who believe in a soul, for science has convincingly "proved" there is no such thing. However, this is based on a misreading of science, as Huston Smith has explained.[11] He argues, science cannot proclaim anyting regarding things that fall outside its domain, neither for nor against. Science has limited itself to what can be perceived with the senses, and the soul is beyond this. (So even if we have a soul, one might add, science would never discover it, not within these self-imposed limitations. But lucky for us, there are other avenues of knowledge we can pursue, such as introspection, mystical experience, and as we will suggest later: psychic perception).

What is more, the burden of proof rests on the materialists who deny anything beyond the body. For in our everyday experience we experience both an external and an internal world. A true theory of the mind should simply honor both these aspects. Claiming that the inner world of thoughts and feelings is "nothing but" and can therefore be reduced to the world of brain chemistry requires very convincing arguments indeed!

David Chalmers has had the courage to question this dominant view. He introduced the expression "the hard problem", to refer to the deepest issue of the philosophy of mind: how is it possible that a material system such as the human brain/body gives rise to subjective experiences of the mind? Contrary to what many in this field believe, no theory of the mind can explain this fundamental fact. Chalmers has shown that any current theory of the mind may explain certain structures or functions at work, but cannot explain, and often does not even address, the question of subjective experience.

Third person scientists of course replied to his claims with the question: how do you know there is subjective experience in the first place? To which Chalmers could only reply: this is a given, a fundamental fact we have to accept. It is the very fact that brought us the idea of consciousness! Without it, we would never have discovered thoughts and feelings existed.

Chalmers has also tried to formulate a theory that can capture this inner, subjective world, but he is fully aware that this cannot be other then speculative at this moment in time. What is disappointing in Chalmer's proposal is that, as much as he wants to transcend the physical dimension, he seems to model the subjective dimension after the primary forces of nature, by postulating another fundamental force (such as gravity, magnetism, etc.). Chalmers undertandably wants to stay clear of spirituality or mysticism; he explicitly states: "There is nothing particularly spiritual or mystical about this theory - its overall shape is like that of a physical theory, with a few fundamental entities connected by fundamental laws."[12] But personaly, I don't see how he can avoid it.

Wilber has favorably reviewed Chalmers' work, but added a number of suggestions. Since we are clearly in the phase of exploration concerning the nature of the mind, we first have to map this territory to the fullest. Wilber has stated that before we can think of understand the mind-body problem itself, we should try to map the "mind side of the equation".[13] Mind and brain have equal weight in Wilber's model of human consciousness, since they both are represented by one of the four quadrants. As is well known by now, Wilber posits four quadrants or dimensions of human consciousness, which have to be included in an integral view:

  • Upper-Left: the subjective (mind)
  • Upper-Right: the objective (brain/body)
  • Lower Left: the intersubjective (culture)
  • Lower Right: the interobjective (society)

Current cognitive studies have favored the objective dimension above all others; have hesitatingly studied the subjective dimension, but have almost completely neglected the intersubjective and interobjective contexts of consciousness. So Wilber is clearly a few steps ahead of the current state of the discussion.

The bigger and much more daunting problem of the relationship between inner and outer, or Upper Left and Upper Right, is divided by Wilber in two steps. The relationship between a specific thought and a specific brain process belongs to the domain of relative knowledge and is best seen as a case of interaction. This works both ways: brain processes give rise to perceptions; and impulses of the will have lead to behavior. In his opinion, this nature of this relationship cannot be adequately understood; we simply have to accept it as a given. Only in contemplative states -- the realm of "absolute" knowledge -- can we solve, or actually "dissolve" this issue. Mind and Body are then seen as two aspects of Spirit, a truth impossible to formulate in relative language without generating paradoxes.[14]

Further horizons: perennialism

While this is already quite "far out" for traditional philosphers of mind, there's another take on the mind-body problem that will be interesting to highlight in this context as well. Perennialism offers a fresh perspective on human consiousness, its embodiment(s) and the world(s) it belongs to. Naturally, this changes the status of the mind-body problem considerably! It also helps clarify some of Wilber's statements regarding subtle energies, subtle "bodies" and subtle "realms", which feature in his more "esoteric" writings.[15]

Wilber has suggested to locate the subtle energies in the Upper-Right quandrant, but this raises the question of how we want to define this quadrant. Obviously, this can be done in several different ways. Defining it as "what the physical senses tell us", it will include the brain, the body and behavior (in the sense of bodily movements). When we define it as "whatever can be seen by any senses, both physical and superphysical", it could include subtle energies of various sorts. Finally, if we define it as "our objectified nature as such", it will include everthing from physical body to subtle body to causal body. In all cases, we only see as much as our senses allow as to see -- be they physical, superphysical or spiritual.

As an interesting aside: even if we could see man's higher bodies, we will never see the consciousness embodied in them. For example: a certain color red in the aura can be interpreted as the emotion of anger, but we will never see the anger directly. Anger remains a first-person emotion, available only by the angry person him/herself. Alternatetively, we would never be able to see our own subtle bodies or aura, as is the case with our physical bodies as well (without the use of a mirror).

When Wilber writes about subtle bodies, he often states, quoting the Vedanta/Vajrayana view, there are only three bodies: physical, subtle and causal, which correlate with the three states of waking, dreaming and deep sleep.[16] However, clairvoyant research has refined this view, distinguishing between a lot more "bodies" of consciousness: physical, etheric, astral, mental, causal and spiritual.[17] These are far more then just abstract levels, but real bodies in the sense of "vehicles of consciousness", allowing us to be in contact with their respective planes of nature.[18] These bodies are more then phenomenological "felt" bodies, perceived in certain states, they are, especially as to the lower subtle bodies, objectively observable and observed bodies, as modern occult literature testifies. This stands to reason, for mind cannot exist in a vacuum, so if we postulate a higher mind, we need higher bodies and worlds accordingly.

Elsewhere I have described the Four Quadrant model as a Kosmic Compass. In fact, we can not only use this model during our earthly lives, but even after death. For we, as well as our fellow-spirits, will always be embodied in some subtle body. The same logic applies here as well: we only see as much as our senses allow us to see. On the astral plane, for example, we will see our fellow men and women in their astral bodies. The Upper Right quadrant will typically be occupied by the astral body/brain. The Upper Left quadrant will be the same as it was during earth life. A clairvoyant sees these things even while embodied in the physical body, so for him the Upper Right quadrant contains both physical and astral phenomena. As long as we are clear about how we define the Upper Right quadrant, there is no need to argue about this anymore.[19]


Chalmers' website on the philosophy of mind:


[1] K. Wilber, Integral Psychology: Consciousness, Spirit, Psychology, Therapy, Shambhala, 2000. Chapter 14: "The 1-2-3 of Consciousness Studies".

[2] D. Chalmers, The Conscious Mind: In Search of a Fundamental Theory, Oxford University Press, 1997.

[3] K. Wilber, "Excerpt G: Toward A Comprehensive Theory of Subtle Energies",

[4] See: K. Wilber, "Do Critics Misrepresent My Position? A Test Case from a Recent Academic Journal",

[5] See: Ch. de Quincey, "Critics Do. Critics Don't. A Response to Ken Wilber",

[6] See: D.R. Griffin, Unsnarling the World-Knot: Consciousness, Freedom and the Mind-Body Problem, University of California Press, 1998, for a good overview (and an attempted alternative to the common materialist approaches).

[7] K. Wilber, Integral Psychology, p. 281

[8] D. Dennett, Consciousness Explained, Back Bay Books, 1992.

[9] See for a good overview of this field: R.M. Harnish, Minds, Brains, Computers: An Historical Introduction to the Foundations of Cognitive Science, Blackwell, 2002.

[10] This argument is elaborated in the last chapter of: F. Visser, Ken Wilber: Thought as Passion, SUNY Press, 2003.

[11] H. Smith, Forgotten Truth: The Primordial Tradition, Harper, 1976. (New edition 1992).

[12] D. Chalmers, "Facing Up to the Problem of Consciousness", Journal of Consciousness Studies 2(3):200-19, 1995.

[13] K. Wilber, "Waves, Streams, States, and Self--A Summary of My Psychological Model",

[14] K. Wilber, Integral Psychology, p. 282

[15] K. Wilber, "Excerpt G".

[16] K. Wilber, Integral Psychology, p. 268

[17] See for example, A.E. Powell (ed.), The Etheric Double, The Astral Body, The Mental Body, The Causal Body, TPH Wheaton.

[18] J.J. Poortman, Vehicles of Consciousness, Theosophical Publishing House, Adyar, 1978.

[19] K. Wilber, "Waves, Streams, States and Self: A Summary of My Psychological Model", note 7,; see also: F. Visser, Subtle bodies, higher worlds,

August 2005.

Comment Form is loading comments...