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The  Shortcomings of the Spirituality of Ken Wilber

 

The references in the text are to Ken Wilber’s books.   Eye to Eye: The Quest for the New Paradigm, (Garden City, NY: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1983).   A Brief History of Everything, 2nd edition (Boston: Shambhala, 2007).  Sex, Ecology, Spirituality: The Spirit of Evolution, 2nd edition, revised (Boston: Shambhala, 2000) Italics are in the original unless otherwise indicated.

        

 

Ken Wilber defends spirituality against its critics by showing that it is a legitimate way of knowledge.  But then he goes against his own standards of knowledge by claiming he knows that the World Soul or Spirit is evolving in the world.  Unfortunately he then continues this overreaching by claiming to map out how this World Soul or Spirit has evolved throughout human cultural history.  By his standards of what constitutes knowledge, these last two claims are not supportable.  In a way he shows why many people in our culture do not take spiritual claims seriously: too often claims about spirituality do not modestly stick to the data.  

         When critics attack spirituality, they often say that science has the one sure way of gathering knowledge.  Wilber rebuts these critics by generalizing what he thinks of as the essence of the scientific method to knowledge gathering in other realms.  In any knowledge gathering process, he says there are three components.  First there is an injunctive instruction of the form: if you want to know this, then do that.  So if you want to know if it is raining, go look outside. The second part of the process is grasping the basic data.  In science this data involves our senses and the external world.  In other realms, the data is spiritual or interpersonal.  The third part is sharing of the data with other trained observers to see if there is community agreement.  “If the shared-vision is agreed upon by others, this constitutes a communal or consensual proof of true seeing.” (Eye, p. 31-2)  

Wilber says that not everyone has an equal vote in what constitutes knowledge as only the opinion of trained people in that area count.  So in science, people have been trained to understand the complex instruments, and someone who wants to have his opinion count has to have done the training.   Wilber claims this way of gathering and testing knowledge can be extended to other realms, particularly spiritual and cultural knowledge.

         It is easy to see how his concept of knowledge applies to the spiritual level.  Wilber says that if you want to know if there is a spiritual level or God, go meditate and do the experiment yourself. (Eye, p. 34)  Many people throughout history have done this and have experienced the divine.

         The trouble is that Wilber is not content with just making this good point about spirituality.  He then goes on to an immensely larger claim that the Spirit or God or the World Soul is evolving in and through the world.

Wilber discusses this process of evolution.  In the beginning, he says there was “only Consciousness as Such.”  Then there was a subtle ripple in this ocean of consciousness.  “This subtle ripple, awakening to itself, forgets the infinite sea of which it is just a gesture.  This ripple therefore feels set apart from infinity, isolated, separate.”   Wilber says this ripple is not at peace and to become peaceful it has to dissolve back into the oneness.  “But to do so, the ripple would have to die—it would have to accept the death of its separate self-sense.  And it is terrified of this.”   So this ripple creates other modes of consciousness that are more restricted.  It creates lower levels of existence such as the mental plane and then the material plane, “where, finally, exhausting its attempt to be god, it falls into insentient slumber.”  Eventually this ripple will evolve in the material world to be aware of itself as God.   Wilber sums up this whole process by saying it is “just the play of the Divine, a cosmic sport, a gesture of self-forgetting so that the shock of self-realization would be the more delightful.” (Eye, p. 130-1)

Is there any way anyone could possibly have experience of this process?  I don’t see how you can say something like: if you want to know how spiritual evolution started, go look at the ripple separating from consciousness.  

Could anyone even think someone might have knowledge of the ripple starting this journey?  Wilber might.  He says in the introduction to the revised second edition of Sex, Ecology, Spirituality that this book was “a story of the feats of your very own Self, and many readers rejoiced at that remembrance.” (Sex, p. xxiv)  He doesn’t spell it out, but he might be claiming that some people’s supposed memory of the evolution of Spirit counts as knowledge of this evolution.  So he could be saying that if you want to know if the Spirit evolved, go into your memories and you will remember how “your very own Self” evolved.  Obviously the vast majority of people in the world do not have those memories.  But he could respond that only the opinion of the trained people count and these trained people do have these memories.  Or, if he is not claiming that these memories count as experience, he might claim that the experts in spiritual knowledge in some other way experience the evolution of the Spirit in the world. 

This leads to second problem with the idea the Spirit is evolving in the world: this idea is not generally accepted by those trained in spiritual techniques.  Theravada Buddhism, which sees itself as primitive Buddhism sticking true to the original teachings of the Buddha, rejects this kind of speculation and tells people to focus on enlightenment only.  So these Buddhists, which are about half of all the Buddhists in the world, reject any talk of spiritual evolution.  Major schools of Mahayana Buddhism, like Yogacara Buddhism, say the world does not really exist, so these Buddhists do not think the Spirit is evolving in this non-real world.  Much of Hindu spiritual thought follows Shankara, who thinks there is a force, maya, which makes us think the world exists, when it really doesn’t.  Wilber’s favorite Indian advocate of evolution, Sri Aurobindo, had to reject Shankara’s world-denying thought to develop his own view of spiritual evolution.  The Confucians do not speculate on such matters, and the Taoists are mostly interested in living forever, and do not talk of anything like the evolution of the World Soul in Wilber’s terms.  Even Wilber agrees that the vast majority of Western mystics do not accept spiritual evolution when he says the worldview behind this notion began to  “’fall apart’ after Plotinus.” (Brief, p. 378)  As there were many Western mystics after Plotinus, he is saying that later Western mystics did not agree with Plotinus’ notion of spiritual evolution.  

So Wilber’s claim about the evolution of the spirit does not succeed as knowledge on his own terms: it is not experienceable and it is not accepted by the community of trained experimenters (the mystics).

 

 

         Wilber’s second major problem is his claim to understand how the World Soul has evolved in human cultural history.   Wilber claims that there have been five major stages of cultural evolution.  Each stage has a way of thinking based on the way people lived.  So when people were foraging, they thought in an archaic way.  When they were horticultural, magic was their primary way of thinking.  When people were in agrarian societies, they thought in a mythic way.  Then in the industrial stage or modern era, they were rational.  In the current informational stage or postmodernity, they are centauric (which means like a centaur, with integration of the body and mind. (Brief, p.110-1)

Wilber is very worried about the environmental crisis and other modern problems.  He thinks that in order to solve these problems, we need to reconcile modernity and postmodernity to arrive at a synthesis.  Wilber emphasizes that reconciling these two ways of thinking “is still the critical dilemma in the world today.” (Brief, p. 435) In another place, he emphasizes this reconciliation even more, saying it isn’t “a minor side issue…[but is the] battle at the heart of the West’s attempt to awaken.” (Brief, p. 451)

Any theory which is based on integrating part of the past into a higher whole where the past is preserved, must first understand the earlier time period.  There is no possibility that we can transcend some period and include its basics insights, if we do not know what that period is about.  Unfortunately Wilber does not have a basic understanding of the early modern period and the Enlightenment (together stretching from the mid seventieth century to the end of the eighteenth century). Wilber writes “if you look at the major theorists and critics of the rise of modernity—such as Hegel, Weber, Habermas, Taylor, Foucault—a surprisingly consistent picture emerges.  They all tend to agree on certain basic features of modernity: a disengaged subject surveying a holistic-it world …[it] produced scientific materialism, dehumanized humanism.” (Brief, p. 406-7)  What he does not seem to know is that this agreement is not surprising in the least because all the theorists he mentions come from the same tradition: Romanticism and its descendant continental philosophy.  The Romantics had a longing for the infinite and a total emphasis on feelings that did not fit in with the Enlightenment’s emphasis on middle class values and moderation.  So they slandered the Enlightenment as money grubbing, reason dominated nerds with no concern  for the sacred.  Wilber’s picture of the Enlightenment and modernity is based on this inaccurate picture presented by its enemies. 

The locus classicus of this view of the period is the book Dialectic of Enlightenment by Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer.  Around the time this book was written, a philosophical movement called positivism was very influential.  Positivism maintained that only things we can experience with our senses exists and can be talked about meaningfully.  Positivism said there were no external values in the world and science was the most important human activity.   It also insinuated that if we could not experience something with our senses, it did not exist.  The positivists emphasized man’s autonomy in the world and his use of reason to dominate the world. This book then, without any sound scholarship, equated the Enlightenment period with positivism and said the Enlightenment thinkers shared the same values as the positivists.  Other books following in its wake that Wilber often cites as the source of his understanding of the period, such as Richard Rorty’s The Mirror of Nature, and Charles Taylor’s the Sources of the Self do a similar thing.

 

Many people accept this false picture of the Enlightenment because much of the secondary literature on the period advocates it.  What people do not know is that this literature is buying into the Romantic view of the period because this view helps promote many groups’ own agendas. The continental philosophers are the descendants of the Romantics and share many of their concerns and biases.  So they want to see the Enlightenment like this.  Many feminists want to promote their view of modernity as based on masculine values and seeing the Enlightenment this way helps this agenda.  Modern day secularists want to see the Enlightenment as their earlier ancestors to give the secularists a longer, more glorious heritage.  So they also argue the Enlightenment thinkers were secular scientific, humanists on their way to living autonomously without  God.  Christians also want to see the Enlightenment in a similar way because many of the greatest Enlightenment figures were pushing an alternative spirituality- Deism- that was a challenge to Christianity’s authority.

As I agree with Wilber that it is necessary to understand the rise of the modern period in order to deal with our current troubles, I have spent over a decade researching this time period.  But unlike Wilber, I did not read the secondary literature of the period’s enemies; I read the primary works themselves.  And I did not project our biases back onto the period by reading thinkers we now consider as important (such as Kant and Hume), but authors who were popular in that time period.  I read people we ignore nowadays such as Trenchard, Hutcheson, Chubb, Tindal, Wolff, Linnaeus, Marat, Robespierre, Shaftesbury, Addison, Morgan, Paine, and Baron von Grimm.  

The Enlightenment I discovered was far different than the common conception of it.  I found that its core position was a new concept of God: a God who was fair, just and benevolent and could be judged by human standards of fairness and goodness.  This God was different than the God of the Bible who was seen as an unfair immoral tyrant who did unreasonable and unjust things.  The positions we associate with the Enlightenment, democracy, criticism, science, business, and worldliness, all flow from this conception of God and the way He works in the world: through Nature. While the Catholics thought God primarily dispensed his goodness to people through the Catholic Church, and the Protestants thought God dispensed his goodness to people through the Bible, the Enlightenment thinkers thought God dispensed his goodness through Nature.  As Nature was God’s handmaiden or servant, we were following God to the extent we followed Nature.   Humans were not autonomous individuals using reason to get their own way.  They were part of Nature, following God’s plan.  [The Enlightenment and its view of God is discussed in much more detail on this site here.]

One of the commonest misconceptions of the period is that the Enlightenment thinkers in general, and the Deists in particular, did not believe in miracles.  This is an important matter as people point to this supposed disbelief in miracles as evidence the Enlightenment thinkers were blazing the path to modern secularism.  In this view of the evolution of Western thought, first there were the Christians with their active God performing miracles, then the Enlightenment Deists who still believed in God but one who was uninvolved with the world, finally there was modern secularism which has evolved past the belief in God.  But at this site here I show that almost all the Enlightenment thinkers believed in miracles and that of the influential English Deists, the vast majority also believed in miracles (go here).

Wilber totally misunderstands the period because he buys into a caricature of it.  Unfortunately it is not just that he gets things wrong.  The problem is why he gets things wrong: he buys into a larger worldview or myth about the situation.  This is best illustrated with two statements he makes about Galileo and the rise of modern science.  He says, “the Churchmen who refused to look through Galileo’s telescope were inadequate in the eye of flesh and their opinions can be discounted in that realm.” (Eye, p.33)  Elsewhere he says that in later centuries, because of the evolution of Western thought,  “You could look through Galileo’s telescope without being burned at the stake.” (Brief, p. 188)

Both of these statements are part of a very popular framework amongst New Agers: the Catholic Church is a great repressive force against free thought including the rise of science.  For example, in the Celestine Prophecy, it is a Catholic cardinal who is intent on suppressing the important sacred manuscript.  In Eckhart Tolle’s work, he blames the Catholic Church for burning witches, neglecting that the Protestants burnt them in roughly equal numbers if not significantly more.  After all, it was not the Inquisition that did the Salem witch trials, it was the Puritans.  Of course, let us not forget the most popular propagator of anti-Catholic myths: The Da Vinci Code.  I have suffered first hand because of the stupidities of the Catholics: my mother stopped using birth control due to their teachings and so I was packed into a very small house with eight brothers and sisters.  While I have no love for the Catholics, I do have love for getting things right.

It was not the Churchmen who did not look through Galileo’s telescope; it was Cremonini, who was a university professor who taught the Aristotelian method of science. Edward Muir,  in his book The Culture Wars of the Late Renaissance makes a very good case that Cremonini, was much more of a target of the Catholic Inquisition than Galileo.  Muir says that from our perspective the main culture war was between Galileo and the Catholic Church, but from the perspective of the early seventeenth century the Galileo case was just a sideshow to the much larger cultural battle between the Church and atheistic professors.  Muir even says that one of the main causes of Galileo’s persecution was that he was a friend and associate of Cremonini.[i]

 

Contrary to Wilber, the Jesuits, a major order of Catholic priests, were very much in the forefront of astronomical research during Galileo’s time. And it rings true to Wilber that the Catholic Church is so much against science instead of seeing that it was a couple professors at the universities who were against looking into Galileo’s telescope.[ii] The Catholic Church did not burn people for looking through telescopes.  (While the Church did burn Bruno, it was not for his scientific beliefs.  It was for his heretical pantheism.)  The Jesuits were major astronomers often validating Galileo’s discoveries.  At this time period the Jesuits were such good astronomers they were asked by the Chinese emperor to correctly compute the Chinese calendar.  It was part of the Jesuit’s program to be in the forefront of scientific discovery as it helped convince people of the rightness of Catholicism.

So Wilber gets his basic facts wrong because this ties into a bias he has about the Catholic Church and its backwardness.  Nor is this the only problem he has with getting his facts right about the Enlightenment and Galileo: he relies too much on the works of big over-arching theorists like Whitehead.  He totally ignores the primary literature of the period or reading careful scholars who have spent their life researching smaller areas of scholarship in order to thoroughly understand it.  Any good scholar knows that the prime injunctive for getting knowledge of the way of people thought in any time period in history is of this form: if you want to understand the thinkers of a time period, go read the primary literature and the careful scholarship on the period.  It is a mistake to think you have understood the period by reading theorists who, by the very nature of being theorists with a theory, have their own overarching narrative they want to fit things into.

One of Wilber’s major concerns is showing that cultural interpretations have as legitimate a claim to being knowledge as scientific matters.   But his cavalier attitude towards understanding the Enlightenment and the rise of science brings this project into question.  He says, “scientific types are always claiming that if something is not empirically true, then it isn’t true at all.  But interpretation is not subjective whim.”  He says the fact that cultural knowledge has “this strong interpretive aspect does not mean they are merely arbitrary or ungrounded, or that they are nothing but subjective and idiosyncratic fantasies.  There are good and bad interpretations, felicitous interpretations and false or distorted interpretations, interpretations that are more adequate and those that are less adequate.  And this can be determined by a community of those that have looked into the same depth.  As I said, the meaning of Hamlet is not ‘have a nice day.’  That interpretation can easily be rejected by a community of those who have read and studied the text—that is by a community of those who have entered the interior of Hamlet, by those who share the depth.…the point is that interpretation does not mean wildly arbitrary!” (Brief, p.145-6)

But saying that interpretations are not arbitrary is not enough to get Wilber what he needs; the community might reject wildly arbitrary claims, but what about claims the community is predisposed to accept because of its biases?  Wilber repeats mistruths about the Enlightenment and the rise of science with Galileo, subjects that he thinks we need to understand in order to solve our most important problems and maybe even save our planet, because this fits his biases.  Scientists have their own biases, but their knowledge claims are constrained by an external world; so they have a much better chance of escaping from them.  In the cultural sphere, community agreement is not so easily constrained by something existing separate from people, so it is much harder to correct.  Thus Wilber is wrong in thinking cultural interpretations have the same claim to be knowledge as scientific truths.

 

         Wilber’s heroes are the German Idealist philosophers Schelling and Hegel.  He says Idealism lost its way because it was not grounded in contemplative practice. (Brief, p. 467)  While he seems unaware that Idealism went out of fashion because it over-emphasized the Wholeness and neglected individuals, he asserts any system which emphasizes Wholeness is worrisome as the individuals in the system tend to become subservient to the Wholeness.  He also says people pushing such a Wholeness are the “main modern enemy.” (Sex, p. 45)   Nevertheless, he is confident that his worldview, with his theory of holons, or parts within a whole, prevents “a totalizing and dominating Wholeness.” (Sex, p. 44)  

         Unfortunately, in one area I care immensely about--  individuals getting personal divine messages-- his theory suffers from this dominating wholeness.  I have gotten many divine messages from my Higher Self or my divine intuition.  These messages have told me to do things such as quit Dartmouth College, quickly move across the country, or have children.  Following these messages has led me to wonderful things like having the time to learn about spirituality, meet my wife, and have my kids.  Wilber, however, is so focused on the World Soul, he disparages people who talk of a Higher Self and claim the divine manifests to them through the Higher Self.  He says the “Spirit manifests always and simultaneously as all four quadrants of the Kosmos.” (Brief, p. 480)  As these four quadrants deal with cultural and physical things, he seems to be saying that any manifestation of the divine cannot be purely personal.  When I receive a message from my Higher Self telling me what to do, it is a personal relationship with the divine and does not involve these other quadrants of the cultural and physical levels.  So he seems to be saying that I am not really making a connection with the divine through these messages as every manifestation of the spirit involves more than a single person getting a voice directed at himself alone.

In another book, he also denigrates getting messages from the Higher Self or an Inner voice by saying the World Soul nowadays “tends to be interpreted as either a Higher Self or a Gaia-self, both dualistic to the core.” (Sex, p. 547)  Dualistic is a code word meaning of lesser awareness as it splits into two the spiritual and physical realms.  He says that people with a “a higher Inner Voice” or those “contacting the Higher Self” are denying their connection to the world, their bodies and their community and instead focusing just on their higher spiritual relationship with the transcendent divine.  He says that these people “in their exclusively Ascending bent [spirituality which focuses on transcending the world] they attempt to get out of the flatland [the physical world] by denying it altogether: Phobos, the fear-laden hand of earth-denying, community-denying body-denying, sensory-denying escape.” (Sex, p. 547)   When I received a message from my Higher Self telling to move across country quickly, and met my future wife the day I arrived in the new state, I was not doing any of the things he says:  I was not denying my body or senses or the world or my community.  I was actively engaged with all of them, trying to be sensitive to what God or my Higher Self wanted me to do in the world. 

 

This point is not a major theme in his work, and I might be misinterpreting it.  But my interpretation fits in with his identification of spirituality with contemplative mysticism.  This kind of mysticism emphasizes achieving a Oneness with Nature, God, Brahman or the Buddhamind.  While this kind of mysticism has been extremely popular lately and most people think it is the only kind of mysticism, there is another, more important kind he denigrates: active mysticism.  Active mysticism encourages people to get beyond their ego to connect with a deeper spiritual reality and be receptive to divine voices, leadings or intuition to help accomplish God’s purpose in the world. Throughout history some of the best known active mystics have been Socrates, Moses, St. Paul, the Sufi saint Khwaja Muin-ud-din Chisti, St. Joan of Arc, George Fox and Gandhi.  Active mysticism is a way of being connected to the divine but also being active in the world.

Contemplative mysticism is delightful for the individual having what Wilber calls the “One Taste” of union of God and self, but why should someone else care if a person experiences union with the divine?  Contemplative union with God is like great sexual experiences: they are nice for the person having them, but they are useless for anyone else.  Active mystics, on the other hand, are not spending their time in individual contemplation, they are concentrating on helping their community and their world by doing what their Higher Self wants them to do.

Wilber claims to be integrating everything together in an Integral approach to the world.  But with his denigration of Higher Self messages and his neglect of active mysticism, he reveals he is not even integrating the best aspects of spirituality, much less everything else.

 

 

 

[i] Edward Muir, The Culture Wars of the Late Renaissance (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007), p. 17-22.

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