Consciousness and Cosmology in Ken Wilber
A Brief history of Everything
ECHOING AND extending the title of Stephen Hawking’s best- seller, Ken Wilber’s new book is an accessible statement of the arguments of his recent magisterial Sex, Ecology, Spirituality, which runs to 500 pages with 380 pages of notes. The less intrepid reader would be advised to start with this book before moving on to the detail of the larger work. Wilber’s work is comparable in scale to that of Arnold Toynbee, Pitirim Sorokin and Jean Gebser – I can think of no other writer with such profound understanding of psychology, philosophy, evolutionary theory, comparative religion and mysticism.
The book takes the form of a dialogue between Wilber and himself, which he explains arises from some real-life dialogues as well as questions he has often been asked about his work. The sequence exposes and clarifies the arguments rather than putting objections to his ideas, so that the effect is less dialectical than it might have been, but it does result in a clear distillation of his ideas.
The central theme is the evolution of consciousness, which Wilber sees as spirit-in-action unfolding itself in a creative emergence where each stage transcends and includes earlier ones. The direction of evolution, he argues, produces greater depth (consciousness) and less span; the idea of span can be understood by considering that there are always fewer molecules than atoms in a structure, then fewer cells than molecules and so on up the scale of complexity, structuration and autonomy. He reintroduces the ancient Greek idea of the Kosmos, which he defines as including the cosmos (physiosphere), the bios (biosphere), the psyche (noosphere) and theos (theosphere). He also builds on Arthur Koestler’s idea of the holon, which is both a whole and a part, depending on the level of analysis – thus the heart is a whole, but also part of the body. All this produces what he calls a “holarchy” or nested hierarchy of forms of life and consciousness.
He introduces the idea of a “four quadrant” analysis, which is both simple and far-reaching: it refers to the interior-individual, the exterior-
individual (i.e. the individual as subject and object, or the aspects of depth and surface), then the interiorcollective (cultural) and the exteriorcollective (social). All of this is detailed in a number of tables and is applied, for instance, to the mind-brain debate within the Enlightenment tendency to reduce the inside to the outside, subjects to objects, the I/we to the It. As Wilber puts it, “surfaces can be seen, depth must be interpreted” – and any interpretation is, according to the insights of post-modernism, necessarily context-bound. The important point is that none of these four aspects can be reduced to another, and a complete explanation needs to take them all into account. Moreover, each quadrant has its own corresponding scheme of validity claim, for instance truth for the objective and truthfulness for the subjective realm.
Wilber uses his quadrant scheme to show that systems theory is in fact what he calls a subtle reductionism since it describes relationships from the outside and ignores the inner realm in the same way as the more familiar atomistic reductionism. so we have a new holistic materialism which, although it combats the traditional mechanistic approach, is nevertheless an expression of the same physicalist assumptions. The link is that both materialistic schools reject the notion of any domain of existence transcending nature and are characteristic of what Wilber calls the “descended grid” or “flatland”. He goes on to show how one of the main conflicts in Western culture has been waged between the “Ascenders” and the “Descenders”, a war in which the Descenders have had the upper hand since the Enlightenment. The Ascenders move upwards towards the transcendent and other-worldly and fail to see that Nature is itself an expression
of the Spirit; the Descenders, on the other hand, focus on the immanent and this-worldly, which involves the collapse of the Kosmos and interior dimensions.
THIS INSIGHT is brilliantly linked to spiritual traditions, where the path from the Many to the One is that of “ascent” to wisdom, and from the One to the Many the “descent” to compassion. It goes without saying that Wilber’s thesis claims that we need an integration between these two polarities or tendencies. He points out that they were in fact integrated in Plato and indeed Plotinus, where the manifest world was seen as an embodiment of the Good. The key Enlightenment figure in this respect is Schelling, who understood the necessity of differentiating mind and nature but saw that the transcendental and unifying ground of both had been forgotten.
Schelling goes further by insisting that Spirit is the only reality: “Spirit descends into manifestation, but this manifestation is nevertheless Spirit itself a form or expression of Spirit itself.” Nature is “God-in-the-making”; the processes of nature are themselves spiritual processes. Wilber sums this up by stating that “Spirit knows itself objectively as nature; knows itself subjectively as mind; and knows itself absolutely as Spirit – the Source, the Summit and the Eros of the entire sequence.” He goes beyond Schelling in his understanding of the transcending of the mind itself through the creative emergence of non dual consciousness which is both its source and goal. It is a process which, as he says, goes from pre-personal to personal to transpersonal, from biosphere to noosphere to theosphere, from subconscious to self-conscious to superconscious. This dialectic was misunderstood by Schelling’s pupil, Hegel, and was not pursued to its logical conclusion by Idealism, which provided no transpersonal practice consonant with its insights. This part of the book is the clearest and most succinct account of the evolution of consciousness which I know, and will appeal to anyone trying to formulate a constructive post-modern world-view.
Wilber’ s remarks on eco-philosophy and environmental ethics are both instructive and controversial. As might be guessed from my account of subtle reductionism above, he traces the roots of eco-philosophy to the Romantic movement, which itself was a feeling reaction against the rational mechanistic impulse of the new science. Their mistake, according to Wilber, is to reject transcendence as ruining nature instead of realizing with Schelling that nature is an expression of the Spirit. Thus they recommend a regressive return to an earlier form of society, which is itself romanticized. I found his criticisms appropriate in the light of his thesis, and would encourage eco-philosophers to re-situate themselves within a Schelling metaphysic:
we are not just parts of the web, but, at a deep level, we are the web itself.
Wilber’s ideas on environmental ethics are based on his distinction between ground, intrinsic and extrinsic values: all holons have equal ground value as manifestations of the same spirit; every holon has the intrinsic value of its own wholeness and depth; then each holon has an extrinsic, instrumental value for other holons. This leads to the injunction to protect or promote as much depth or consciousness as possible. Deep ecology tends to conflate these three values while Wilber’s distinctions can bring greater clarity to ethical discussions, especially those involving relationships between different species.
Summarizing a book which is already a summary can only convey a flavour of the richness of its content and insights. Wilber is one of the most important thinkers of our time and brings a fresh understanding to our cultural situation and the prospects for an integral world-view in the next century. No one concerned with the big picture can afford to ignore Wilber’s work and this book provides the best introductory overview of it.
David Lorimer is Director of the Scientific and Medical Network and lives in Buckinghamshire.