Ken Wilber’s Sex, Ecology, Spirituality

Argument by Anthony Signorelli

For many years, I’ve been enticed by Ken Wilber’s creative thought and the system he developed and calls A Theory of Everything. That book, plus his magnum opus Sex, Ecology, Spirituality, sets the foundation for what he calls “integral theory,” a perspective or movement he hopes can spread and change the world. It’s a big bold idea, but whenever I see such an idea—especially if it seems compelling—I wonder what is behind it. What is lurking? What are the details, and will they hold up? Sex, Ecology, Spirituality is a huge work that lays out the foundation of the theories. Reading it, I expected to find the roots of his perspective, and this expectation was not disappointed. Indeed, in those roots were some of the most compelling ideas on the modern world published in the last fifty years. On the other hand, once finding those roots, I was dismayed to discover profound problems with his system, which undermine the whole intellectual enterprise.

Tantalizing Thought

Wilber’s most poignant contribution is a new challenge to “flatland pluralism”—a kind of non-hierarchical, depth-free relativism that has afflicted many leading intellectual and social thinkers since the 1960s (with strands, actually, going back to the Enlightenment). Flatland, in Wilber’s thought, is a combination of a positivist, pseudo-science worldview that denies hierarchy, depth, or spirituality of any kind. It is a worldview of facts and statistics, which generates a dull moral outrage, yet persists is being flat, dull, and boring.  It is “flatland” because there is no real differentiation of types or qualities or levels. All such differentiations are viewed as suspect from the flatland perspective. This worldview resulted in a dumbing down of American intellectual life in the last half of the 20th century, and some of our strongest thinkers noticed and called it out.

For example, Alan Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind was an eye opening swipe at the flatland problem back in the 1980s, but like most swipes of this nature, the argument was hollow. Bloom just didn’t like pluralism as an idea, so he argued through his experience with students for the substitution of a different ideology. Bloom and many others said essentially that pluralism (and all its flatland blandness and refusal to recognize real, hierarchically different standards) is terrible so let’s replace it with conservatism—in other words, one ideology for another; one crutch to prevent thinking versus another.

What Wilber seems to have pulled off in this book, published in the 1990s and still relevant today, is an engagement in the same conversation, but without arguing it from one end or the other of the ideological pole. Wilber has said: Pluralism (and all its flatland blandness and refusal to recognize real, hierarchically different standards) has caused many problems, yet it is a natural stage of the social development of societies, and let’s see if we can find a way to develop beyond it. In other words, Wilber is saying that so long as you are moving from the sociopolitical left to the sociopolitical right and back again, society is not moving forward, it is simply moving across. That is, it is stuck in a flatland worldview. We remain on the same spectrum either way, and that’s why these fights are so devastatingly worthless. According to Wilber, we are wasting energy and going nowhere, and he posits a different idea.

Society Development

Wilber’s move is powered primarily by looking through the lens of development. He sees that the general trends of western society have moved through stages—from a kind of animistic/magical worldview of primitive gods, to a literal/scholastic view of the Middle Ages, to the rationalism of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. He aligns this movement or development with Piaget’s model of child development, and it provides some very intriguing perspectives on the ideological conflicts of our time. In particular, he uses this framework to penetrate three: the New Age regression toward animism, the flatland ecology that claims a holism that isn’t whole, and ultimately the entire battle between science and religion, which he understands as a backward looking perspective for both camps, not something moving forward. Let’s look at all three before going to the problems with his approach, which are at least as profound.

New Age Regressions

The notion of development through these stages enables Wilber to see New Age attacks on rationality and reason for what they are—regressions. Wilber sees the rational worldview as a level of consciousness more developed than the magical worldview or the literalist worldview. He would argue that it is one thing to acknowledge and embrace your developmental level as a rational human being and then add to it a deeper, more robust, creative, spiritual dimension. But it is something completely different to bar rationality from the room—as many New Age spiritualists do—and that rational questions are asked by people who are “stuck in their egos,” overly intellectual, or fearful of losing control.  These insults reveal what’s really going on here. It is not development, but regression—a moving backward into a pre-rational mindset, a banning of the rational perspective. In other words, it is not moving into higher levels of consciousness, as many New Age leaders would claim, but rather retreat away from the gains of rational thinking and the power of reason. A true spiritual development, according to Wilber, would add onto the rational egoic level and develop beyond it, not reject that critical power and pretend it doesn’t exist.

More on Flatland

The developmental perspective also enables Wilber to see “flatland.” It is a term both descriptive and accurate. “Everything is the same, no value judgments allowed, all perspectives are legitimate.” One problem occurs, of course, as you confront the perspective that says the pluralistic position is not legitimate, and it gets really untenable when that perspective is so strident that it is bent on destroying people who hold the pluralistic view—as in Nazism, Stalinism, or ISIS today. In that instance, the logic of flatland relativism completely disintegrates. But that’s the obvious example.

The more interesting example is how a flatland view of the world, based on science and Enlightenment thinking (I would add driven by corporate structures) drives systems thinking, which has particularly infected and damaged the ecological viewpoint. I have been bothered for years by the dull monotony in ecological treatises taken with cataloging all the horrors of ecological devastation, claiming that nature should be valued, but always completing the book without any sense or experience of actually valuing it (see, for example, the anthology of essays called Deep Ecology for the 21st Century, Our Stolen Future by Theo Colborn, books by Paul Shepard or any number of other ecologists). Indeed, “valuing nature” seems to be a theory only—lots of numbers and statistics, but no vibrancy, and little or no depth, emotional connection, or spiritual dimension—hence, Wilber’s “flatland.” There’s no actual spiritual depth to it.

Wilber’s developmental model helps to shine light on this problem. One can easily identify that people who hold this view are simply stuck at a developmental stage that prevents them from seeing the truly deeper realities. But the more important insight is that this view, rampant as it is in ecological circles, is at the heart of our inability to act on ecological problems. The affinity for nature is gone. The spiritual aspect is nonexistent. Suddenly, we have a biosphere that is simply an empty concept and a cog in a great system. Worse, it collapses further into a tank of resources for later exploitation. In other words, there becomes no motivating vitality in the ecological movement, and anyone who has been in it in recent decades probably knows what I mean. It is easy to find a fight and cause there, but not a spiritual experience.

As such, ecology—right at the time when we need it most—has collapsed into its own conceptual abstraction, and that is its flatland ideology. To Wilber the tragedy seems to be that while the ecological crisis ought to open doors of perception, it has actually closed them. Flatland produces a hyper-rationalistic view that casts off all “lower” levels of development, yet cannot and will not assert any higher level than itself. This is hard to see clearly without a developmental model such as Wilber’s.

Science vs. Religion

Finally, Wilber’s developmental model provides the basis for ending the science vs. religion debate—a centuries long tedium which is still being fought today. Instead of allowing this debate to be definitive of the human experience, Wilber sees that this debate is merely a battle between the two dominant, lower level worldviews of the last few centuries, with science being the rational developmental stage just beyond the literalistic religious view. Although both of these stages become perspectives, one is clearly more advanced or developed than the other. The developmental model suggests that there is another stage beyond these. After all, if humanity’s consciousness is developing, then there must be a new stage to which we will be moving, and from which this current perspective will look rather ridiculous.

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These insights provide a whole new way of thinking about development, ecology, rational thought, consciousness, and more. Like me, many people will find them useful for a long time to come. Unfortunately, the theory also creates serious intellectual problems, none of which are resolved satisfactorily.

First Problem: An Incomplete Theory of Everything

The first big problem is this: Wilber’s thought is the basis for a theory of everything that doesn’t account for everything. Wilber’s worldview is fascinating in how it handles thought, worldview, and cognition. The stages of development, the incorporation of one “whole-part” after another, as he calls them, and the constant “upgrading” of worldviews through the stages is poignant and penetrating. And yet, right there in its brilliance is the core problem. It is a strictly cognitive structure, and it is all about thought. In my reading of the first book, feeling and intuition were each mentioned once. While Wilber uses Piaget for a model of cognitive development, he completely ignores other aspects of development—emotional development, moral development, and spiritual development. Emotional development seems not to matter at all, and therefore there is no sense of the quality of life, its grandness, the depth of imagination—nor of what depth psychologist James Hillman called the “deepening of events into experiences.” Moral development, and all its wrestling with the contradictions of life—does not appear.

So while the book is the foundation for his later book, A Theory of Everything, it falls short precisely because it in no way accounts for everything. Thought and worldviews, yes. But the rest of the psychic and human experience? Hardly. In this way, Wilber has made the colossal error so many have made, but he has made it on a larger scale—he has claimed a theory that accounts for everything, yet which has conveniently done so by removing from the theory all those pesky phenomena it cannot account for—precisely and exactly, the feeling, moral dilemmas, and intuition that are part of the human experience.

In lesser thinkers, it is customary to excuse such missteps by criticizing only how well the theorist accomplished what he or she set out to do. But with Wilber, you can’t do that. After all, he is aiming to account for it all. If you set out to explain everything, you can’t reduce the realities of human experience to other so-called explanatory models. It’s either incomplete, dishonest, or both.

This problem gets Wilber into a lot of trouble. While on one hand, his theory of everything is incomplete, on the other, this exclusive focus on cognition leads to unsightly and mistaken attacks in places they don’t belong. A great example is the lens he uses to set up a straw dog out of Joseph Campbell’s work—through misreading and the ascribing of motives Wilber could not know—which he can then slay with his own superior cognitive view. Allow me to explain.

In the early to mid-1990s, millions of people were attracted to Joseph Campbell’s popular interviews with Bill Moyers, and his related works of mythology. Wilber dissects the cognitive work behind Campbell’s theory, and essentially trashes it. He makes the interesting observation that to deal with mythology in an “as if” manner, as Campbell was fond of speaking about, one must in fact utilize the rational function. One must be able to step back from the literal belief form and see the images and stories as symbols, get distance and perspective, and then see it. Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces, Wilber would argue, could only be written from just such a standpoint.

This perspective worthy of consideration, but Wilber also ascribes motives to Campbell that he has no way of knowing, and therefore undermines the strength of his own argument. For example, he gets accusatory. He says: “Since Campbell’s prejudged aim is to prove that reason and science are in no sense “higher” than “real” mythology…” This is to say that Campbell was dishonest, that he set up a prejudged aim and then bent his intellectual work to prove it, yet Wilber offers no evidence of such a prejudged aim. What has Wilber so disturbed here is a fundamental misunderstanding of what Campbell, as well as Jung, Eliade, and others, were actually up to. The reason he can’t see it is that he is blinded by his own intellectual framework, seeing his stages as sacrosanct, focusing almost exclusively on cognition, and therefore altogether missing the point of Campbell’s work.

Wilber: “It is people such as Campbell and Jung and Eliade, operating from a widespread access to rationality—something the originators of myth did not have—who then read deeply symbolic “as ifs” into them, and who like to play with myths and use them as analogies and have great good fun with them, whereas the actual mythic-believers do not play with the myths at all, but take them deadly seriously and refuse in the least to open them to reasonable discourse or any sort of “as if” at all.”

Wilber sees the “mythic-believers” as developmentally lower than these rational minds, and because he believes it is a stage of development that controls cognition, he can only see the cognitive function of myth—that is, how it works when it is literally believed. To that end, he is correct. Literal belief in myth can be taken as deadly serious by such believers, as even a cursory survey of fundamentalist belief systems in today’s world will attest.

But cognitive function and literal belief are not the only function of myth. Indeed, the deeper function of myth is to point to and open realities of being that are, in fact, non-rational and non-cognitive—creative, imaginative, emotional, psychic, and spiritual. These doors may mix with rational perceptions when it is available, but it is a fallacy to suggest that the only thing myth can do is tell a story you believe to be literally true.

Joseph Campbell’s work was not attractive to people because they wanted to give up rationality. They were not looking to live a mythological worldview as a literal totality, and they were not seeking to go native. They were attracted to his ideas because of what such a view could do to deepen their experience of life. Animism as a cognitive state is one thing, but animism as a way of better understanding dreams, personifying, individuating, deepening psychic life, and finding perspective on the human experience reaches far beyond the confines of the intellect.

Campbell’s great gift was to offer myth as one door into the non-cognitive experiences of life. Contrary to Wilber’s view that Campbell was trying to “prove that reason and science are in no sense “higher” than “real” mythology…”, Campbell saw and celebrated mythology as a door human beings could use to get to the non-cognitive side of human experience. At one point in the interviews, Moyers asked Campbell if myths could help you find the meaning of life. Campbell said no, and went on: “I don’t think what people are looking for is the meaning of life. What people are really looking for is the experience of the rapture of being alive.” Campbell was not fighting with reason or science; he was, ironically enough, fighting the very flatland Wilber rails against, and doing it not with cognition, but by providing doors and practices people could use to find something in their experience beyond the flatland modernity had given us.

The Second Problem: Development as Metaphor

Wilber’s big theory, as I will call it, stands soundly on the foundation of the Great Chain of Being, which he identifies as reflecting a fact of evolution, even by great thinkers long before Darwin articulated the idea of evolution. Indeed, drawing on Lovejoy’s Great Chain of Being, lower forms evolve into higher forms, and there are particular laws or rules about how all this works. Wilber expands this idea to include pre-life forms (his physiosphere), regular life forms (biosphere), and the psychological-spirit forms (noosphere). His starting point for all this is holons, which he seems to take as the basic building blocks of everything, since everything is both a part and whole (called a holon) at all levels of this universe. At this point, the idea is a refreshing alternative to the conventional science/physics approach of reductionism.

But then, things begin to go wrong. Wilber then translates the whole idea from evolution to development. He takes the grand theory of the long, slow evolution of species and the Great Chain’s hierarchy of beings, and translates it into the development of societies (based only on their worldviews) on one hand, and the development of individual human beings (through a lifetime) on the other. Worse, the levels in this universal theory are defined not by the full range of the characteristics of the human experience, but only by acts of cognition and intellect—in short, the worldview of the person or society.

In this way, Wilber achieves a unique distinction to promote two unconscious fantasies at the same time: the first I will call the developmental fantasy, and second the intellectual fantasy.  Before we go on, I should outline what I mean by fantasy, and then we will return to these two key ideas.

James Hillman, the great depth psychologist who stood on the shoulders of Jung and Freud, saw fantasy as the core activity of the psyche—an activity most easily observed in dreams, but also observable in everyday life. We imagine things to be true—about parents, other people, or the world. These are fantasies—ideas and images that guide us through a framework of understanding and experience, and he saw that we unconsciously adopt them as the guiding lights in our lives. For a psychologist, that unconsciousness was untenable, for it is the source of neuroses, and eventually psychoses. To Hillman, all psyche is fantasy, or rather, fantasy is the currency of the psyche. It is the autonomous imagination. And when we are driven by fantasies without being aware of them, our worst neuroses appear.

Hillman wrote extensively about this western fantasy of development (also called growth). He saw that the fantasy is the unconscious energy driving much of western psychology and society. Everything must grow. Growth in business, development of cities, self-development, self-improvement, the idea of growing like children. Always getting better.

Just as Hillman exposed the fantasy of growth and development at the core of our culture, that fantasy is the very trap into which Wilber seems to fall. Intellectually, Wilber is enticing. He draws on the great chain of being, long philosophical history, and great spiritual traditions. I have no problem with the assertion of hierarchy (it’s all around us if you just look), nor with the idea of levels, or even that societies and organisms change and grow. And yet, while Wilber features development as a central structure to his theory, as a reader I become rather suspicious. You have all this material on growth and development (as I would expect when you are basing your theory on Piaget), but what about decay? Why do you go around and around about the acorn developing into the tree, but never mention the death and decay of the tree? And this: You see this developmental process unfolding, but is that an objective, real view? Or is it a misguided ethnocentrism based on the blindness of your own self awareness? Generally speaking, it is a dangerous game to project motives and intentions onto the man, yet these questions arise, and I am not sure how to answer them. Wilber’s entire system is built on the notion of development, and if development has been hijacked, borrowed, or mislabeled, it calls into question the entire edifice of his thought.

Problem Three: Wilber Serves Flatland!

Let me be clear: A worldview that is purely cognitive and intellectual inherently serves flatland! Even though, as he refers repeatedly to the holons going all the way up and all the way down, in an apparent effort to assert that depth exists, no depth appears. The ideas have dimension, to be sure, but they are stuck in the intellect. Depth means intellectual depth, but also the emotional, spiritual, and social depth. None of that depth appears, and that is a sure signal that the writer is being blinded by his own brilliance.

Wilber seems to believe that the intellect drives everything about human nature, human development, and human societies, and even that it will drive emotion, spirit, and social practices. In other words, intellect is primary. Wilber seems to apply his hierarchy here—he puts intellect on top and the other aspects of human experience, like emotion, as subservient. In his system, emotion is a whole-part—it is whole thing in and of itself, but it is also a part of something bigger. Given this subservience, emotion must be a whole-part to the next order of the hierarchy—the intellect. But in human being, it seems at least plausible to suggest that just as emotion, for example, is in many cases subservient to intellect, so intellect is frequently subservient to emotion. Both are paradoxically “whole-parts” to the other—and in that way, decidedly not hierarchical.

Consider this: Wilber himself talks about the intense emotionality resulting from worldviews that are crumbling within the context of a lifetime. Literalists (a cognitive function) hate it (an emotional experience) when their views are being challenged from the next level up in his hierarchy. True enough. And this example illustrates how the cognitive can drive emotion. But it is also true that one’s emotions—feelings of shame, for example—can completely alter one’s ability to think. Anger clouds judgment. Love blinds. And these emotions can do this powerfully, even to the most cognitively developed people.

The cruel hoax, then, is that Wilber himself has put forward a theory that reinforces the very flatland he so clearly detests. Flatland, after all, is the egoic-rational “level” gone amuk. It is the rationalist, positivist perspective on everything, turning everything into an “it.” It is intellect and cognition cut loose. It is worldview as if it were the only thing. Indeed, by ignoring or subsuming emotion, intuition, and imagination, Wilber’s theory casts out the most commonly found antidotes to flatland, spheres one can explore to find deeper, more vital life experience. He also niftily avoids the feedback loops between these phenomena that would suggest the hierarchy isn’t as definitive as he wants it to be. Neat.

To be clear, I am not arguing to do away with hierarchies. Wilber’s great contribution is that notion of the whole-part holons, and as such, everything and every idea is a whole unto itself and a part of something larger, and it is made up of other holons. That’s significant. But the idea is stuck in hierarchy, and Wilber has set it up so that there cannot be any feedback loops. If emotions are holons within a worldview, then worldview cannot be a holon for emotions. Unfortunately, this is a demonstrably false statement, and the falsity challenges the entire framework.

Problem Four: Inappropriate Theoretical Parallels

The fourth big problem is the way Wilber uses the generalness of his theory as a license to draw theoretical parallels that turn out to be highly questionable.

For example, Wilber draws a parallel between three hierarchies—the development of the child and individual human being, the development/evolution of societies, and evolution of the species. Is it not a huge, unsubstantiated leap to insist that Piaget’s theory of child development says much at all about evolution—especially about the evolution of societies? This seems like an enormous leap, even if you buy into the developmental fantasy. Piaget, Darwin, and the ancient view of the Great Chain of Being are not, in fact, the same things. These theories are not about the same thing and they don’t say the same things. They are operating in completely different spheres of reality. Wilber seems to argue that because these three show hierarchical and developmental aspects, that’s enough to show that everything is structured the same way.

The impact, however, is more sinister. By implication and parallel construction, he is saying that indigenous cultures that have animistic worldviews are all immature, childish and underdeveloped, whereas all rational cultures are mature, proper, and rational—in a word, better. Even if you grant this claim by limiting it to the cognitive/intellectual sphere (where rational does indeed provide something better than literal religion), there is no way to sustain this judgment across the entire spectrum of the human experience. Because one culture thinks at a higher level than another—at least from its own ethnocentric view—does not mean that it feels better, intuits better, creates better, or even works better.

Of course there are dangers of cascading off into social Darwinism, but my concern is more about obtaining an accurate picture of reality. If one were to articulate a truly developmental framework, it cannot take only one part of human being—the cognitive—and assume that every other part of being develops in parallel to it. Neither individuals nor societies develop that way. Piaget is not Darwin is not the Great Chain of Being. The assertion that they are undermines the faith of the reader that the theorist may be trusted. Ultimately, this is where I lose my confidence in Wilber.

Conclusion

My argument with Ken Wilber boils down to this: Despite his brilliance and the insights his perspective generates, the theoretical and intellectual foundation of that perspective generates unworkable problems. Those problems lead one to suspect the original insights that appeared so tantalizing. I doubt Wilber will return to this work, for his more recent writings focus on his idea of integral theory, and he seems to have a lot of energy in the Integral Institute focused on personal growth.  For those of us who appreciate his intellect, I expect we will be left wanting.

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