On Ken Wilber and Integral Theory
Or, the smartest man you’ve never heard of
“No one is smart enough to be wrong 100% of the time.”
When I first heard these words spoken by the eclectic philosopher Ken Wilber, there was something that immediately rang true about them. Whether it be individuals, organisations, methods of inquiry, theories, or even traditions, truth can be found wherever we search. I learned early on in adulthood that life and human experience are rarely ever black-and-white. We live in the grey; in a world marked by complexity and diversity. This is not to say that everyone is right (or equally right), either. Rather, we must realise that — to varying degrees — all experience sheds light on what the truth of reality is. This idea forms the basis of a school of philosophy known as perennialism: a perspective that all the world’s religious traditions share a single, underlying metaphysical truth (albeit one which manifests itself in a diversity of esoteric experiences and exoteric theologies).
Yet, this idea doesn’t apply to religious traditions alone. How are we to make sense of the way in which truth is revealed through, say, the scientific method? Or, through the field of sociology? Enter, Integral Theory (IT). Developed by Wilber, IT is a philosophical framework which seeks to integrate all forms of human experience and wisdom into one coherent ‘theory of everything’. From development psychology to Neoplatonism to Vedanta, IT provides a ‘map’ whereby each unique theory or tradition can be valued and understood in light of its relation to all others.
Now, I won’t attempt to explicate the entirety of Wilber’s theory in detail. There are a plethora of books, articles, videos, and whatnot which do just that! But, much of its essence can be summed up via AQAL (“All Quadrants All Levels”): the basic framework which underlies IT.
Wilber argues that all human knowledge and experience can be placed somewhere within this four-quadrant grid. Our own individual interior experiences, for example, can be placed within the upper-left quadrant. This form of knowledge is subjective and takes place within that which we refer to as “I” (i.e. first-person experience). On the other hand, the discipline of neuroscience — the scientific study of the nervous system — would fall into the upper-right quadrant, being a field of inquiry which seeks to understand and explain the workings of the human nervous system from a third-person, exterior, objective perspective. As IT developed over time, other elements such as states, lines, types, and stages were added to the model (see figure 1) to more comprehensively explain the complexity of human development. More recently, the theory of Spiral Dynamics has also been integrated into IT, further adding to its breadth and depth. Nevertheless, as the theory has evolved over time, the underlying assertion remains the same: that human knowledge, experience, and development is deeply complex and no one theory, discipline, or system of knowledge will provide us with the whole truth. Rather, they each provide us with a fragment of the capital ‘t’ Truth. Thus, we run into trouble when we absolutise one at the expense of all others (e.g. “Only ___________ is the truth and nothing else!”). We can see real-life examples of this in forms of religious (and non-religious) fundamentalism and ideological fanaticism.
What’s even more impressive than this theory is the man himself. Whilst Wilber has had a mixed reception within the academy, his influence has extended to major political leaders such as Bill Clinton, filmmakers such as the Wachowskis (creators of The Matrix series), and a plethora of other cultural and religious/spiritual leaders. In his earlier years, Wilber made the decision to drop out of a PhD program in biology at Duke University to pursue what his doctoral advisors at the time dubbed “silly” questions relating to life, meaning, and spirituality. He subsequently spent several years engaged in Zen meditative practices and released his first groundbreaking book The Spectrum of Consciousness at the ripe old age of 28 (which he completed at 24). Wilber was eventually dubbed the ‘Einstein of Consciousness’ and, in my humble opinion, rightly so. You can even watch footage of him stopping his brain waves through meditation! What I personally found most impressive, however, was the story of his late wife’s (Treya) extended battle with cancer and his role as her primary carer, recorded in the book Grace & Grit. Here is a moving clip of Treya sharing her story shortly before her death in 1989. Such an experience heavily influenced Wilber’s subsequent writings and perspective on all things related to life, illness, and death.
If there’s one book I’d recommend you read, it would be Grace & Grit. My own introduction to Wilber came through one of his other books, Integral Psychology (which I would also recommend). It came at a time when I was journeying through some profound questioning; seeking to make sense of my own fractured beliefs and experiences. I have fond memories of reading Wilber whilst sojourning through (rural) India, soaking up its richness and diversity. I’m deeply grateful to Wilber (and many others) for helping me reconcile what I was encountering (and have encountered) with my own unique lived experience.
Importantly, some of the critiques of Wilber, IT, and the ‘integral movement’ are worth taking seriously. Mark Manson, author of The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck, wrote one such critique highlighting the weaknesses of both Wilber and the movement which he spawned. Whilst I don’t agree with every single sentence in this piece, it makes some important points. And, as Manson rightly notes, a truly integral approach would function as a protective buffer against the very mistakes Wilber and the integral movement have made. Indeed, no one person is immune from (moral) failure, even someone as brilliant as Wilber.
Nevertheless, like Manson, Wilber will no doubt continue to influence my own spiritual and philosophical outlook. And, I’m likewise convinced that he will be written about in the decades and centuries to come as someone who was well ahead of his time.
“Are the mystics and sages insane? Because they all tell variations on the same story, don’t they? The story of awakening one morning and discovering you are one with the All, in a timeless and eternal and infinite fashion. Yes, maybe they are crazy, these divine fools. Maybe they are mumbling idiots in the face of the Abyss. Maybe they need a nice, understanding therapist. Yes, I’m sure that would help. But then, I wonder. Maybe the evolutionary sequence really is from matter to body to mind to soul to spirit, each transcending and including, each with a greater depth and greater consciousness and wider embrace. And in the highest reaches of evolution, maybe, just maybe, an individual’s consciousness does indeed touch infinity — a total embrace of the entire Kosmos — a Kosmic consciousness that is Spirit awakened to its own true nature. It’s at least plausible. And tell me: is that story, sung by mystics and sages the world over, any crazier than the scientific materialism story, which is that the entire sequence is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying absolutely nothing? Listen very carefully: just which of those two stories actually sounds totally insane?”
(A Brief History of Everything, p. 42–3)