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Joe CorbettJoe Corbett has been living in Shanghai and Beijing since 2001. He has taught at American and Chinese universities using the AQAL model as an analytical tool in Western Literature, Sociology and Anthropology, Environmental Science, and Communications. He has a BA in Philosophy and Religion as well as an MA in Interdisciplinary Social Science, and did his PhD work on modern and postmodern discourses of self-development, all at public universities in San Francisco and Los Angeles, California. He can be reached at


The AQAL as a Complex Adaptive System

Joe Corbett

Thus it can be said that the LR is a self-similar or fractal subsystem of the AQAL as a whole in dynamic interaction between its parts.

This essay is intended for those who are already familiar with the basic concepts of Ken Wilber's AQAL model, and for those who are, in some ways it may challenge their understanding as it has been articulated by Wilber, because it is certainly intended as an expansion of that articulation.

The Lower Right Quadrant of the AQAL is the impersonal, interobjective relations of the parts of any whole. That much is clear from the standard interpretation. Thus, as I have articulated elsewhere, this includes most importantly for our times the class relations of any society, and hence the form of Justice and/or Injustice in that society according to the functional or dysfunctional balance of relations within society that those class relations represent. Are the class relations of a society functionally sustainable and robust, or do they contribute to the instability and potential breakdown toward the entropic chaos of the system?

We can therefore see the relevance of the LR to questions of system stability/instability, and the issues addressed by the science of complex systems. But what is happening in the LR between the parts of a system is also what happens in the AQAL as whole with the quadrant domains as the parts or nodal points of the AQAL system, which are linked to one another and in dynamic interaction through resonant synchronicity and feedback loops that affect one another. Thus it can be said that the LR is a self-similar or fractal subsystem of the AQAL as a whole in dynamic interaction between its parts. As above so below.

The self-organizing autopoietic characteristic of complex systems in the LR is in fact what the AQAL as a whole is doing—self-organizing into wholes that tend to self-organize into ever greater and more complex wholes, or precisely spirit-in-action, Eros by any other name. This way of looking at things also gives us a clue as to what we mean (analytically) by Spirit, which is simply any whole unified through the linkages of its parts, or precisely the LR quadrant of an interobjective totality, whereas spirit-in-action is the dynamic of wholes acting as parts in sync and feedback with other wholes to form ever larger and more complex whole-parts.

What I just described as the action of the LR and of the AQAL as a whole is a fundamental organizing principle or dynamic of the entire universe and all of its subsystems. In a sense, the AQAL is a Universal Model of Complex Adaptive Systems (UMCAS). To support this claim I will use examples from language and chemistry to illustrate how all the quadrants can be reduced to fundamental principles that are applicable to all levels of systems, from physical to biological to psychological and social, and thus show how the AQAL is a UMCAS.

The idea of there being an interior and an exterior, a subjective and an objective, an unmanifest and a manifest aspect of the Kosmos is fundamental to integral theory, and to much of the philosophy and spirituality throughout the ages. It is also a fundamental aspect of our being as conscious and physical organisms—we perceive the objective world outside, but apparently only by means of subjective processes hidden from our view. In the AQAL this binary is identified not just by the interior and the exterior quadrants, but by the inner and outer aspects of each quadrant, which is again a self-similar repeating pattern that is in the larger system and reflected in its subsystems. Wilber labels the inner and outer aspects of each quadrant as the 8 zones, but I will stick to the long form of identifying them as the inner or outer aspects of the quadrants.

The outer aspect of the URQ is It, the thing or objective appearance in the world. Linguistically this could be represented by a string of letters d-o-g, or chemically by a string of atoms c-o-o (carbon dioxide). The inner aspect of this chain of strings would be a Bit, or an informational quality in the world, an energetic vibration. In the case of d-o-g it would be a phonetic sound coming from each letter in combination, and from c-o-o it would be the energetic bonds between the atoms. In both cases the It, the word dog and the chemical form carbon dioxide, would come from the Bit, the wave-forms of energy underlying them which is simply their informational frequencies.

In keeping with physicist John Wheelers famous phrase, “It (matter-particle) comes from bit (information—frequency, spin, charge, position, momentum, etc.)”, we can see in this relation between the inner and outer aspect of the UR a fundamental principle in operation, namely, manifestation proceeds from the inner (bit) to the outer (it), but without the outer there would be no inner that would be intelligible to forms in the world. Everything would just be information without form, and there would nothing to in-form. Hence even the information wouldn't really be in-formation, but something else altogether, perhaps just random noise. Therefore the very existence of the inner-outer binary (It from Bit) is the fundamental principle of manifestation in the universe. It is what in-forms matter and information as intelligible manifestations in the universe.

Taking this analysis to the UL, the word dog and the chemical carbon dioxide take on more significance, literally, by going from signifiers, of the objective word-chemical forms that represent something, to becoming specific signifieds or meaningful forms in their own right. They acquire a subjective component that has an inner and an outer aspect. The outer aspect of the subjective domain of the word dog is the image we see of the structure and shape of the animal that the word dog is used to represent, and the inner aspect of dog is the experience we have had with them, which has its own kind of informational content involving a negative, positive, or neutral charge.

The outer aspect of the subjective domain of CO2 would not just be the links between a carbon and two oxygen molecules, but the specific structure and shape that it takes in those linkages, which gives it the identity of carbon dioxide, whereas the inner aspect of CO2 would be how it experiences itself (or reacts) in relation to the world, and particularly with respect to other chemicals. Since there is a vast landscape in which different letters and atoms can be combined in different ways to form different words and chemicals to represent different signifieds, a second fundamental principle of the Kosmos can be derived from what can be clearly seen in the ULQ, and that is the principle of diversity and creative difference by the sheer fecundity of actual and potential meanings, both linguistic and chemical.

Shifting our attention to the LLQ, we can see that the inner aspect of the intersubjective domain, or the semantic context that gives the word dog its meaning in relation to the other meanings in the system of language, involves an interpretation of dog as not only distinct from cat and other animals and words, but also whether it is seen as a family pet or as a source of food to eat. However the latter case involves not just how the meaning of dog is derived internally within the system of language, but how its meaning is also derived from cultural values and worldviews external to language, in this case, whether dogs are valued as pets or as things like chickens and pigs for humans to eat. This kind of valuation and view of things is the outer aspect of the intersubjective domain.

In the case of CO2, its inner intersubjective aspect comes from how it differs from other chemicals in different contexts, interacting with some very differently than others in different contexts, whereas its outer intersubjective aspect comes from the class of molecules (with different values and worldviews) to which it belongs, as for instance whether it has an organic worldview or an inorganic worldview. From this we can derive a third fundamental principle of the Kosmos, and that is that all manifestations of meaning are woven into a system of meanings that are inseparable and mutually self-defining by their contexts, and that these definitional identities consist of and create a knowledge-base or memory-field that stabilizes the meanings of all of them in different contexts, including different value systems and worldviews, even though they are also always in flux in-and-between contexts, shaping and reshaping their memories and knowledge-base.

Indeed, the LLQ is the domain of the storehouse memory of the Kosmos, or the Kosmic Unconscious (retrievable in appropriate contexts, of course), in much the same way that the meanings of language are largely defined by their absences, by the hidden or not-immediately manifest and non-locally present opposites and contrasts of difference within contexts or fields of meaning, rather than individual monads of meaning. This irreducible mutual arising of separate meanings underscores the process-relational unity of the universe, and its essentially soulful nature expressed through its intersubjective bonds.

Moving to the LRQ we see that the word dog and CO2 are objective parts of a larger whole defined by the rules of emergence within that whole, or by the syntax of self-organization, if you will. In the case of dog, the outer aspect of its interobjectivity is its place in the system of language as an animal that was domesticated by humans but which evolved from a much older canine species. It has the same place in language as other nouns, but could also be used, for instance, as an adjective to describe other people or things, in which case its place in language would change according to the rules of grammar governing nouns and adjectives. Using it in different grammatical forms can radically change the way we use language and the system of meanings we derive from it, and that would constitute the inner aspect of its interobjectivity within language.

In the case of CO2, its interobjective outer aspect consists of the place it occupies within the system of chemicals of which it is a part. That place and its quantitative presence may be constructive or destructive to the system in which it operates, and that would be a reflection of its inner aspect, whether it made organizational sense to the system of which it was a part and contributed to generating conditions that the system could functionally tolerate, or whether it made no sense to sustaining the system-memory that had hitherto been accumulated as a knowledge-base for its functional reproduction. In other words, whether it followed the syntactic rules of systemic meaning and recursive order generation, or did not, would be the inner aspect of its outer collective being.

And this is something that not all chemicals, or other parts of wholes within other systems for that matter, follow. Only those systems that are complexly adaptive will follow rules for self-generating order, because they have a syntactical governing system, a system of law and self-similar order as well as a system of meaning and values, that contribute to their self-regeneration. Without the rules for generating patterns of self-similar order through recursive feedback loops, and those will be different for different systems, then no matter how profound the meanings or how deep the values they create and form, they will not be self-sustaining systems of complex adaptive behavior, nor of evolutionary advance. They will merely be temporary curiosities of the first three principles that failed at including the fourth principle, which is the coordinated constraint (the outer aspect of the LR) and recursive embedding of the parts in combinatory expansion of the whole into self-similarity (the inner aspect of the LR), both of which constitute the grammatical or complex self-organizing function.

A true CAS generates the conditions for its own self-reproduction into ever greater wholes through time, primarily by utilizing syntactical recursive feedback, the semantic knowledge-base, and the creative potentials of signifieds and their signifier manifestations, all inherent as aspects of the Kosmos. Everything I have said here about words and chemicals and their place in the AQAL as a UMCAS, is also true of biological systems, neurological systems, social systems, and ultimately the Kosmic Dynamic System of which they are all self-similar subsystems. All of these systems have their nodal points and links in dynamic interactions of resonant synchronicity and feedback loops between their inner and outer aspects at multiple levels. Identifying these components and dynamics for different systems can be guided by the UMCAS of the AQAL.

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