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Ken Wilber's method of philosophy

Of all the grand Synthesisers who have tried to create a truely universal and all-encompassing system of thought, Ken Wilber is the only one to actually formulate a methodology whereby this can be done. Rather simply be guided by feelings or spontaneous intuition (useful as they may be), he follows a specific and quite rigorous, very rational approach in integrating all bodies of human knowledge and understanding. In this way he claims to counter the extreme postmodernist relativism currently favoured in academia, by incorporating the present diversity of isolated fields of sciences, philosophies, religions, and cultures into a single grand model, which at the same time preserves the unique truths of each.

The central thesis and overarching point about Wilber's methodology is that he almost never rejects a person or an entire system of thought. For example, although he criticises Jung, he does not say that Jung is wrong, and in fact he frequently advocates Jungian therapy as an example of what he calls a fulcrum-4 modality. The essence of his "Integral" approach is, as Ken often says, "everybody is right, and nobody is smart enough to be completely wrong all the time." Thus all theories and teachers have something valid to say, and to contribute to our understanding of the whole.

Wilber's method of inquiry involves three discrete but sequential stages. The following summary is based on and more or less paraphrased from the explanation by Jack Crittenden's well-written (if at times a tad over-exuberant) essay What is the Meaning of "Integral"? found on the external link Integral Institute website (and foreword to one of Wilber's books).

Ken Wilber's Method

The first step is to identify an "orientating generalization" or "sturdy conclusion", in other words, a basic conclusion or agreement, from various systems (including rival systems) of thought, particularly those that are accepted as being beyond criticism by competing schools of thought.

"In working with any field, Wilber simply backs up to a level of generalization at which the various conflicting approaches actually agree with one another. Take, for example, the world's great religious traditions: Do they all agree that Jesus is God? No. So we must jettison that. Do they all agree that there is a God? That depends on the meaning of "God." Do they all agree on God, if by "God" we mean a Spirit that is in many ways unqualifiable, from the Buddhists' Emptiness to the Jewish mystery of the Divine to the Christian Cloud of Unknowing? Yes, that works as a generalization..."

The above simple example is from theology, but Wilber does not limit himself to mysticism or psychology - he approaches all the fields of human knowledge in the same way. In every case he assembles a series of sturdy and reliable orientating generalizations. It is not important if other fields do not accept the conclusions of any given field (e.g. empirical science not matching religion); rather he simply assumes that each field contains a very important and valid generalization which is indeed true.

The second step takes all the truths assembled in the first step and poses the question: What coherent system would in fact incorporate the greatest number of these truths? Wilber's reply is his "integral system" which so he and his followers claim incorporate "the greatest number of orientating generalizations from the greatest number of fields of human inquiry." According to Wilber then, it is not the case of someone being right and someone else wrong. Rather, his basic idea is that every worldview or system of knowledge or belief, has an important even if partial, truth. "Instead of asking which approach is right and which is wrong, we assume each approach is true but partial, and then try to figure out how to fit these partial truths together, how to integrate them - and not how to pick one and get rid of the others."

The third step is the development of a new type of critical theory. Once Wilber has the big picture arrived at in the preceeding stages, he uses that to criticize the partiality of narrower approaches, even though he has included the basic truths from those approaches. He criticizes not their truths (which are part of the overall integral system), but their partial nature.

[paraphrased from Jack Crittenden - What is the Meaning of "Integral"?]

A a critique of Ken Wilber's integral method

Ken Wilber's integral approach represents a very innovative attempt at finding a methodology for a universal system of knowledge. However I do have a number of criticisms, or perhaps questions, which I have presented here. And whiIe have read a few of his books and some of his online writings, I am not a Wilber scholar by any means, and it is quite conceivably possible that at several points in this critique I have misrepresented Wilber's views. He himself complains that his critics don't understand him, and external link whatever they are criticising, it is not his theories. Therefore, if any of Wilber's students notice anything in this page that isn't accurate, or misrepresents what Wilber himself has said, I invite them to please write to me so that I can correct any errors here.

Criticisms of Stage I (the orientating generalization)

First of, I think the basic concept of Orientating Generalizations is a very good one, innovative, even revolutionary. I also use this approach, for example when looking at the perennial philosophy and the concept of emanated worlds in esotericism, and of stages of emergent evolution when looking at the evolution of consciousness in the cosmos.

Having said this, there are some issues with the way this is done in the Wilberian methodology:

No ontological discrimination - For Ken, everyone has some truth to say. He assumes that each field contains an equally important authentic truth. In other words experiential revelations through spiritual truth and gnosis (e.g. the great mystic and esoteric traditions of the world are of no more and no less significance than intellectual discussion (often with little or no understanding, and strong reductionistic or other memetic bias) about those revelations. But if reality is an ontological hierarchy, it follows that those who have attained a level of insight closer to the Source will have more of value to say than those who haven't.

Insufficient Research It is often necessary to study in a subject in detail to understand it. When you have literally hundreds, thousands even, of specialised topics, this obviously becomes impossible. The result is that Wilber makes generalizations on the basis of insufficient research and study. This draws into doubt his entire methodology.

Misinterpretation and/or misunderstanding of Original Sources. We have seen that Wilber seriously misinterprets both Mahayana Buddhism and the teachings of Sri Aurobindo; two wisdom teachings that he often speaks highly of. And these sort of errors are not just limited to esotericism, as scientist and esotericist Arvan Harvat observes [in A Glance at Ken Wilber's "A Brief History of Everything"] Ken Wilber's references to Pythagoras' theorem and Quantum Mechanics are so amateurish as to put off a professional physicist or a mathematician who might otherwise be interested in his work. Add to that the many errors he makes in his critique of the Darwinian paradigm re biological evolution. So if in all these instances, the data Wilber presents in step one are unreliable and in error, the implication is that any orientating generalization based on that data would likewise be incorrect.

No allowance for a collated body of facts actually being completely incorrect - In Wilber's Integral Philosophy. everyone has to be right about something. Or, as he often jokes, "nobody is smart enough to be wrong all the time." [Crittenden op. cit.]. But what if someone is? What if their whole assumption of how the world is faulty, and moreover, this wrong-view becomes the basis of a serious and respectable tradition of knowledge? During the middle ages, learned authorities all agreed that the world was flat. Moreover, it was assumed that if you sail beyond the known world you would fall off or be eaten by monsters (there be dragons). Writers would even describe strange creatures living in fare-away places - one-legged men, or people with their faces on their stomachs. Moreover, this sort of thing wasn't limited to the middle ages. Look at external link Hollow Earth theory that was so popular in the late 19th and early 20th century (and still has a few fringe adherents even now - along with a huge amassed body of evidence!)

Or, as one critic writes:

"Wilber says that because no mind can produce 100% error, every theory contains irreplaceable truth. This is a non sequitor. Even if no mind can always be wrong, a given theory or proposition can be 100% wrong."
Wilber's Theory Of Consciousness

Who knows how many errors of fact the human race still clings to? The Greeks thought they understood the entire known world, but Greek science is a quaint historical footnote of the development of modern science.

Criticisms of Stage 2 - (the integral system)

Faulty Correlation With the data and truths he assembled in step one, Wilber arranges these into "chains or networks of interlocking conclusions" that constitute the integral vision of Step Two. But what methodology does he follow to ensure that all these relative truths are matched up correctly, and that the integral system does indeed constitute a correct picture of Reality? For example there are external link many inconsistencies between quadrants and levels in the AQAL model, although it should be noted that Wilber himself also states [in on-line essay An integral theory of consciousness] that this arrangement is intended as a simple diagram only. Even so, this diagram appears often in Wilber's work, and no attempt has yet been made to correct or refine it.

Bias, Distortion, and Exclusion of Fields of Knowledge Wilber claims he is creating a completely universal system of integral knowledge, but several objections can be raised to this assertion. For one thing, he almost completely ignores indigenous people, their cultures, and religious beliefs, and when he mentions them, it is as primitives with a pre-rational society. This seems to be tied in with his opposition to eco-spirituality in general, which he sees (in his own linear integral philosophy) as a regressive backward phenomenon. He also rejects occultism and seems unaware of the entire Hermetic tradition, only accepting Eastern siddhis (and equivalent, e.g. miracle-working saints), presumably because of his preference for Advaita and Buddhism.

Both these exclusions - the negative interpretation of shamanic cultures (in spiral dynamics equated with the "purple vMEME" the lowest level), and the denial of occultism and the occult tradition - reflect the 19th century Eurocentric rationalistic "myth of progress" mode of understanding, according to which tribal cultures (and hence nature mysticism, despite the fact these are not synonymous) are backward and primitive, and occultism is infantile thinking. These are only two examples, both symptom of Wilber's rationalistic bias, but who knows how many more like this there are? In contrast, he selectively and even uncritically favours other fields of study (Advaita Vedanta, Vajrayana Buddhism, and Zen all come in for special treatment). I'm not saying this latter is bad, but I do consider the former is counter-productive. And until these biases, omissions, and inbalances are corrected, Wilber's Integral Philosophy cannot be truely integral, especially when it is excluding (or when including, seriously misrepresenting) a huge element of human thought and experience.

The Whole is More Than the Sum of the Parts - Wilber's thesis is that adding or superimposing many different scientific, sociological, psychological, and psychospiritual maps already developed by various sciences, religions, philosophers and practitioners results in one big map, like putting together the pieces of a jigsaw (e.g. the Four Quadrants). And while it may be true that the various previous theories are each partial attempts at explaining or mapping Reality, that does not mean that simply putting them altogether gives the complete picture. Often the Whole is More than the Parts

Criticisms of Stage 3 - (new critical theory)

No Option for Further Adding of Knowledge Wilber's Integral System is superb as a way of integrating and incorporating all the separate fields of human knowledge. But it does not go beyond synthesis. The Third (practical) Stage of Wilber's methodology is not constructive, but destructive. It is a way of criticising other theories (and this has its place too!), but it does not add anything new. While science and esotericism both accumulate new facts (the former by empirical method, the latter intuitively, phenomenologically, and more haphazardly), Wilber's Integral system is ultimately a sort of cataloging and critiquing of the over-specialisation of other fields. Ultimately it seems (to my own superficial understanding) just a form of over-intellectual pigeonholing. This is not to say there is no place for this sort of thing - there absolutely is. But this in itself is not sufficient to create a truely integral system of knowledge! The problem is that Wilber's background here is in comparative mysticism and Western psychology and humanities. And regarding the latter, modernism/postmodernism especially seem to be a major influence (to which he is responding and critiquing) in his later work, even if he is a very unconventional modernist! Postmodernism's strength lies in deconstruction and criticism, not in building up and creating a new and systematic edifice of thought (and by this I don't mean something just based on the ideas of only one person, no matter how talented he might be). Perhaps this point will be corrected by Wilber and his students as they develop the integral movement further.

No Predictive Ability Both conventional science, and even alternative approaches like the Unified Science of Edward Haskell, have predictive value. But there does not seem to be anything like that in Wilber's integral theory (although I may be wrong - if I am, please let me know).

Criticisms of All Stages

No Method of Verification or Falsification For all the persuasiveness of Wilber's three-fold method, there is one thing missing. There is no possibility of verification or Popperian falsification, such as one finds in Scientific Method. For example, a single child with a genuine mystical experience would be sufficient to demolish Wilber's Pre-Trans theory. Incidentally, both Adidam and Mirra describe such experiences in their own childhood. While one could say that they are exceptional beings, and therefore "don't count", a paper published in external link the Journal of Transpersonal Psychology in the early 1980s refers to mystical or peak experiences among children. See Armstrong, T. (1984). Transpersonal experience in childhood. The Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, 16(2), 207-230. More recently the on-line essay external link Childhood Experiences of Higher States of Consciousness: Literature Review and Theoretical Integration by Jayne Gackenbach, confirms this in more detail. Wilber himself in his Boomeritis book (and in other recent works) is therefore forced to say "that these three or four great states (gross, subtle, causal, nondual) can be experienced at virtually any stage of development" [online at external link Childhood Spirituality]. He also says

"(T)he charge that I denied any sort of spirituality to both children and early an unfortunate misrepresentation of my work, based exactly on the notion my model is merely linear."
Ken Wilber Introduction to Volume 6 of the Collected Works - Amazon com The Revised, Second Edition of Sex, Ecology, Spirituality

The above point of course refers to Wilbers AQAL phase (Wilber IV and V) with its diversity of Waves, Streams, States, and Lines of development. But there is no mention that in this way the Pre-Trans thesis has been falsified (and I mean here falsified as an objective psychological observation, not as mythic and symbolic metaphor) or rejected, the way Wilber repudiated his early "Jungian romantic phase". He continues to include Pre-Trans even in his current talks and writings. Without rejection of pre-trans, the AQAL psychological theory (see external link Waves, Streams, States, and Self--A Summary of My Psychological Model (Or, Outline of An Integral Psychology)) can only suggest that mystic experiences in childhood would correspond to "states" that are temporary, but only become established and permanent "structures" when one has progressed in one's psychophysical-spiritual development to that stage (i.e. gone from Pre to Trans). This assumes that a child can only be a temporary mystic, unlike a mature adult yogi who has gone beyond ego. Which ignores for example the traditional Tibetan Buddhist cultures in which a son from each family would join the monastery, of adepts like The Mother (Mirra Alfassa) who had transcendental experiences and a level of mystic attainment rare in most yogis when she was only five (see e.g. The Mother on Herself, 1977, Sri Aurobindo Ashram, Pondicherry, and Nolima Das, ed., Glimpses of the Mother's Life, 1978, Sri Aurobindo Ashram, Pondicherry. )

The Pre-Trans theory also has problem with tribal societies. As we have seen in Criticisms of Stage 2 , these have been misinterpreted and played down in Wilber's grand review of all human knowledge and experience. The reason for this is that tribal peoples are considered to belong (ignoring here the "Waves, Streams, and Lines" exceptions) to a primitive magical pre-rational phase of society and human evolution. As Gus diZerega explains:

"When he wrote Amazon com Up From Eden, Wilber believed modern hunting and gathering peoples were contemporary examples of the "magical" world view [but] apparently they are not "under the spell" of the magical consciousness. They are as rationally competent as moderns. . . . Today Wilber grants that modern hunting and gathering peoples, when tested, score as competently as modern urbanites in terms of their ability to think in "formal operational" terms. . . . According to him today, the condition of modern tribespeople tells us nothing about the mental development of Paleolithic peoples. . . .

Wilber tries to get himself off the hook by saying Jurgen Habermas has "demonstrated" [these] claims. But Habermas has not . . . At best Wilber has misread Habermas, who explicitly rejects interpretations such as Wilber's. . . .

Setting Habermas aside, the fact that Wilber once used the cultural and religious practices of contemporary hunting and gathering peoples to illustrate "magical" modes of awareness, only later to acknowledge that moderns do not have that consciousness proves the inadequacy of using such practices to support his point. . . . all empirical examples of tribal practices that Wilber offers in support of his thesis actually better support the opposite conclusion. "
Gus diZerega - Ken Wilber's Critique of Deep Ecology and Nature Religion: A Response html summary - full pdf

What all this means is that Wilber's Integral Philosophy cannot be falsified; it has no criteria for proof or disproof. And this would make his Integral Method nothing more than another religion or ideology or dogma, and, like all religions and dogmatic ideologies does not allow itself to be critiqued or corrected, but instead provide endless convoluted explanations when disproved. See external link Karl Popper's comments on this sort of belief system). (Incidentally Wilber cites Popper as one of the inspirations for his "Big Three" AQAL philosophy). Ironically, this whole approach, the inability to admit one is wrong and move on from there, begins to resemble Wilber's own "Pre-rational" stage.

Jeff Meyerhoff's Critique

Jeff Meyerhoff has written a powerful critique of Wilber which in some respects mirrors my own, but is better researched - unlike me, Meyerhoff really has read all of Wilber's books. See external link Bald Ambition: A Critique of Ken Wilber's Theory of Everything, published online. My criticism of Meyerhoff is taht he is limited to an exoteric relativist/postmodernist misunderstanding of spiritual consciousness. He thus is unable to either acknowledge or to critique Wilber's real contributions in the field of presenting spirituality and consciousness as a counterbalance to the secular materialistic sceptical world of academia

For more on Meyerhoff, see the following links and discussion:

A critical external link Review by Jan Brouwer, and Meyerhoff's Reply

external link CONTEXTUALIZING KEN, A Review of Jeff Meyerhoff's Bald Ambition by Andrew P. Smith.

The mmessage board forum discussion on the Shambhala forum includes critiques, responses by Jeff, and assorted comments.

blog Cool Mel's Review of Bald Ambition

To date, neither Wilber, nor any of his students, as far as I know, have seriously replied to any of Meyerhoff's criticism. Daniel Gustav Anderson external link has even suggested that this critique is what provoked Wilber into posting his June 2006 blog that for a time polarized the Integral Community.

Where to now?

Ken Wilber's methodology is not yet a complete system for establishing a Grand Synthesis or Theory of Everything, but it is certainly the beginning of a system. For it to become a true foundation methodology, it is necessary to address the above problems. This is an exciting and worthy field of intellectual exploration, for any of Wilber's students who might wish to undertake it.

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page uploaded 15 June 2004, separated critique page 8 December 2005, then merged again 2 August 2009