Journal of Contemporary Religion, Vol. 17, No. 2, 2002
ISSN 1353-7903 print/ISSN 1469-9419 on-line/02/020165-15 © 2002 Taylor & Francis Ltd DOI: 10.1080/13537900220125163
Despite his disavowal of the 'transpersonalist' label, Ken Wilber remains the leading figure in the still evolving and ever-controversial field of transpersonal psychology. He has provided transpersonal psychology, seen by many in the academic community as a fringe discipline at best, with at least some degree of scholarly respect and philosophical and scientific legitimacy. Although Wilber's work has been the object of much criticism from fellow transpersonalists, little effort has been made to assess the value of his work from outside the transpersonalist community. This paper is an attempt to provide a 'non-transpersonalist' assessment. As a starting point, we will accept the reality, validity, and value of the transpersonal religious experiences that are the foundation of Wilber's work. However, in subjecting his thought to a philosophical and theological analysis, we suggest that his positions are seriously flawed. Specifically, we identify an ambiguous and inconsistent definition of 'God'; a flawed epistemology that privileges non-dualism without adequate justification; and faulty and selective use of textual sources to support his positions. Secondary issues include contradictory positions regarding the presence of a personal element in the divine nature, de-valuation of the individual self, and inadequate emphasis on the moral component of spiritual development.
Over two decades have passed since the publication of Ken Wilber's first book, The Spectrum of Consciousness, in 1977 (Wilber, 1977a). During this period, Wilber has emerged as the leading figure in the still evolving and ever-controversial field of transpersonal psychology. A prolific writer who has published over 15 books in addition to numerous scholarly articles, Wilber has provided transpersonal psychology, seen by many in the academic world as a fringe discipline at best, with a degree of scholarly respect and philosophical and scientific legitimacy that it otherwise might not have achieved. By incorporating in his presentation of the basic tenets of transpersonal psychology a wide range of thinkers from the fields of psychology, philosophy, religious studies, anthropology, and other disciplines identified as 'legitimate' by the mainstream academic community, he has helped the field to acquire at least a moderate air of legitimacy in some segments of the academic world. Remarkably, he has done so while simultaneously appealing to a largely non-academic audience, as illustrated by the almost guru-like esteem in which he is held by the distinctly non-scholarly contributors to the Ken Wilber Website which is sponsored by his main publisher, Shambala.1
However, Wilber's position as the leading figure in transpersonal psychology has not protected him from a wide range of criticism. Indeed, his tendency to write in what appears to be a deliberately polemical and provocative style, has frequently resulted in similarly sharp responses from his transpersonal colleagues. Most of the criticism of Wilber's work has, however, been produced by other transpersonalists who, by definition, share most of his beliefs about the nature of human consciousness. The issues over which they disagree often seem to be of the 'in-house' variety, frequently amounting to arguments about secondary issues and arcane details, which to an outside observer might appear rather insignificant when compared to the larger issues of agreement. Indeed, despite the controversial nature of many of Wilber's positions, there has been relatively little criticism of his work generated by individuals outside the field of transpersonal psychology. Wilber has engaged in sharp exchanges with existential psychologists (see May, 1989; Schneider, 1987) and his work is occasionally reviewed in mainstream academic journals (see York, 1999), but apart from this, most of the criticism of his thought comes from within the transpersonal field. Just why the academic community tends to ignore Wilber is itself an interesting question, although not one which will be explored here. Secularists may perceive Wilber's writings as unscientific nonsense; Christian and other theistic writers may view his positions as the latest version of a spiritually misguided gnosticism that they hoped had been vanquished centuries ago; yet, for whatever reasons, his work does not receive much attention by those outside transpersonal psychology.
The purpose of this article is to offer an assessment of Wilber's thought from a philosophical and theistic-theological perspective. Therefore, this will be a critique from outside the transpersonalist community. However, unlike the not uncommon view of non-transpersonalists who tend to look with disdain at Wilber's thought and reject not only the value, but even the reality of the transpersonal experience on which his work is based, we will concede that people really do attain the type of internal experience which he describes as 'transpersonal' or 'non-dual'. We also acknowledge that the internal experience to which he refers is well-documented in various spiritual traditions of many different cultures over the past two millennia.
However, while acknowledging the reality of the internal experience that forms the basis of Wilber's work and of transpersonal psychology in general, we will argue that his interpretations of this experience are dramatically flawed. Specifically, we will argue that his theorizing about and interpretation of the transpersonal experience is characterized by illogical and philosophically invalid reasoning. That the experience occurs, we do not deny; that Wilber's interpretation of the experience is valid, we do deny. Given the reality of the experience, Wilber's various assertions about the meaning of the experience simply do not logically follow. While the critique will focus primarily on the errors in his philosophical reasoning, we will also explore as a secondary critique some of the criticisms that emerge from a theistic assessment of his thought.
While the specific details of Wilber's model have changed over the years, the broader theme remains consistent: there exist different levels of consciousness, each of which makes accessible to the subject a different view of some aspect of reality, or the 'Kosmos', which is Wilber's preferred term to describe all that exists at all levels of material and spiritual existence. Furthermore, some types of consciousness reveal a fuller and more comprehensive view of the Kosmos than do other types of consciousness; hence, it is appropriate to rank the different types of consciousness on a spectrum or hierarchy, with the 'higher' stages being those which offer a more complete view of the Kosmos to the perceiving subject. The spectrum model does not negate the validity of the lower stages: what they reveal about the world is accurate as far as they go. Their deficiency is, however, in revealing only a very limited aspect of the entire Kosmos.
While Wilber has periodically changed the specific stages in the spectrum of consciousness, in general the spectrum follows the same pattern from lower to higher stages. More significantly, Wilber has been quite consistent in describing the higher or 'spiritual' stages which will be the focus of our discussion. What follows is the specific spectrum, ranked from lower to higher stages, which he has employed in recent writings (Wilber, 1996: 139):
Corresponding to each level in the spectrum of consciousness, Wilber identifies a worldview, or "what the Kosmos looks like from a particular rung of consciousness" (Wilber, 1996: 172). These worldviews begin with the archaic level and evolve through the magical, mythic, rational, and centauric/existential, culminating in the transpersonal worldview which corresponds to the four highest levels in the spectrum of consciousness. Wilber does not suggest that the earlier worldviews are incorrect, but that they only reveal a very limited view of the Kosmos and are therefore less valued than the later worldviews, culminating in the transpersonal worldview, seen through the psychic, subtle, causal, and non-dual levels of consciousness, which reveals the Kosmos as it truly is in all of its fullness.
The first six levels of consciousness (sensoriphysical to vision-logic) and their corresponding worldviews (archaic to existential) are rather non-controversial, describing universally accepted differences in how humans at various stages of development perceive and think about the world. From a concrete, direct awareness of physical reality (sensoriphysical), the model moves to the acquisition of abstract concepts and symbols which generate a mythical worldview, followed by the development of rational consciousness which produces a scientific worldview, which in turn evolves into a consciousness that turns back on itself and results in an existential self-consciousness over issues of meaning and purpose. Again, these are rather uncontroversial observations, which describe modes of consciousness and worldviews which are commonly accepted aspects of the human experience.
It is when Wilber moves beyond these levels into what he calls the 'transpersonal band' or the four upper levels of the spectrum that his model ventures into areas that are not considered as 'givens' by the wider academic community. Since these transpersonal modes of consciousness will be the focus of our critique, we will describe each level before proceeding.
The lowest level of transpersonal consciousness described by Wilber is the psychic. Although his description of this and the other transpersonal levels is sometimes rather vague, he generally describes this level of consciousness as one associated with what is often referred to as nature mysticism or a feeling of oneness or connectedness with the entire physical Kosmos. The sense of being an individual member of a particular species is transcended, as one becomes aware of one's relatedness to all of creation. One perceives the world through the 'cosmic consciousness' which does not isolate and particularize as ordinary consciousness does. As an example of psychic level mysticism, Wilber often refers to Emerson's description of the 'Oversoul' (Wilber, 1995: 283-290).
Psychic level mysticism is superseded by subtle level mysticism. This is one of the most difficult of Wilber's stages to grasp, given that his descriptions of this stage are quite elusive and often seem to blend theistic and non-theistic elements, with no clear explanation of how they relate to each other. In general, subtle level mysticism involves consciousness of the spiritual aspect of the Kosmos. As such, it contrasts with psychic level mysticism which is more focused on unity with the material and natural world. Subtle level consciousness involves an awareness of the dimension of reality that transcends form of any type; the sense of unity with the natural world is not lost or denied, but rather supplemented by a sense of connectedness to the invisible, spiritual, formless aspect of the Kosmos. Wilber suggests that this experience of the Spirit that pervades the Kosmos is interpreted in specific cultural contexts: Jews refer to it by the name of Yahweh, Christians by the name of Christ, Hindus by the name of Krishna or Shiva, etc. However, all share an awareness of an invisible Spirit that is present throughout the universe and in some sense transcends the material universe. Thus, subtle level mysticism can be described as "union with God by whatever name" (Wilber, 1996: 211).
The next level of the spectrum of consciousness is what Wilber calls the causal stage. In the causal mode of awareness, perception of the self as an entity distinct from an external reality outside the self is absent; indeed, even the sense of the self as a separate, individual spirit is transcended. In describing this level, Wilber often alludes to the Indian doctrine of the Sakshin or 'Witness' self. The Witness is the consciousness that is pure, formless awareness, identified with neither individuated material or mental realities. Wilber also associates this level with the Buddhist concept of Shunyata or Emptiness. Therefore, "Because it can never be seen as an object, this Self is pure Emptiness" (Wilber, 1996: 220). Emptiness does not refer to a negation of being, but to the complete fullness of being as seen in the context of non-differentiation or non-duality. In a sense, the Kosmos is experienced as 'one taste' or as a single undifferentiated entity. The movement from the previous level to this level is thus described as one in which "deity mysticism gives way to formless mysticism" (Wilber, 1996: 225).
Wilber's spectrum of consciousness culminates with the non-dual level, which is described as not so much a separate level as the ground and basis of all levels: non-duality is the Kosmos seen as it actually is, including, but also transcending all of the previously described levels, which revealed the Kosmos from increasingly full, but nonetheless partial perspectives. At the non-dual level, the self no longer identifies with itself in any form at all, not even the transcendental, purely spiritual Witness that characterized the causal level experience. Again, borrowing from Buddhism (in this case, the concept of Tathata or Suchness), Wilber suggests that in non-dual mysticism, there is nothing but the pure awareness of "the reality or Suchness of all levels, all states, all conditions" (Wilber, 1996: 227). Indeed, it is somewhat inaccurate to describe it as a level of consciousness, since consciousness presumes the presence of a conscious, perceiving subject and a perceived object that is in some sense different from the subject. In non-dual mysticism, the duality of subject and object is completely overcome and one participates in the pure awareness that is the Kosmos itself, manifested as both form and formlessness, matter and Spirit.
Wilber's characterization of the non-dual level is at times frustratingly vague, but this is typical of descriptions of the non-dual level in all the perennial traditions that report access to this dimension of spirituality. Like the Zen Buddhists who rely on irrational koans, the Upanishadic teachers who characterize the Brahman as 'neti neti' (not this, not that—not anything that can be described in words), or Lao-tze who says of the Dao that "The Dao that can be named is not the eternal Dao", Wilber resorts to metaphors, poetry, apophatic language, and other indirect means of describing what is by definition ineffable.
However, what is quite clear is that Wilber views non-dualism as both an epistemological and ontological ultimate. When the Kosmos is seen as it actually is, non-dualism is the only accurate characterization of its true and complete nature. It is Wilber's elevation of non-dualism to the highest level of spiritual experience that will provide the primary focus of the following remarks.
For the sake of argument, we grant that the various stages in Wilber's spectrum of consciousness indeed describe real experiences or states of awareness experienced by human beings in various times and places. This concession also applies to the higher, transpersonal stages: people really enter into modes of awareness in which reality is perceived in a manner which, although ultimately ineffable, generally lends itself to descriptive terms similar to those employed by Wilber. What Wilber refers to at the transpersonal levels is an experience that is as real to those who participate in it as are all the more ordinary, daily, empirical experiences to those of us who are not participating in a transpersonal mode of awareness. The certainty with which I see, hear, touch, taste, and smell the ordinariness of everything around me is matched by the certainty of the non-dual mystical experience of the Suchness of all that is.
The question is, however, not whether an experience which participants tend to characterize as non-dual actually occurs, but rather how to interpret it. One can acknowledge that the modes of consciousness described by Wilber indeed exist, while simultaneously rejecting his interpretation of those experiences as representing the 'highest' type of religious experience or spirituality.
More specifically, Wilber suggests that non-dual mysticism reveals an awareness of the ultimate nature of reality, which he equates with an experience of God, the All, Suchness, etc. Clearly, he sees this mode of consciousness as revealing the ultimate truth, in contrast to the lower levels on the spectrum which reveal only partial aspects of the truth. This ultimate truth consists of the unitive and spiritual nature of all that is or the Kosmos in its entirety. Just as the non-transpersonal levels of consciousness reveal bits and pieces of empirical knowledge about the universe, the transpersonal consciousness makes known to one's awareness the entire Kosmos in all its glory. It is the unlimited awareness of the Kosmos that Wilber seems to equate with the highest form of mystical experience, since, as awareness of the entire Kosmos, there is nothing else left.
From a theistic perspective, the flaw in Wilber's position is quite glaring: on what grounds can he interpret an experience of the entire Kosmos—both in its material and spiritual dimensions—as an experience that includes God, if God is a being that exists outside the created Kosmos? Granted that the non-dual experience occurs and granted that it can be sublime, noetic, ineffable, etc., on what basis can one verify that it is an experience of the truly All (Kosmos and transcendent God), as opposed to an experience, however remarkable, of the transcendent God's created Kosmos? Even if the unitive Kosmos indeed exists, one cannot from that fact deduce or infer that no reality exists outside that Kosmos.
Looked at from another angle, if there is a God who in some sense transcends the Kosmos, by definition—even when one experiences the Suchness of the totality of the Kosmos in non-dual mysticism—one is not experiencing that God who somehow stands outside that Kosmos. Again, this is not to deny the reality and relative validity of non-dual mysticism, but non-dualism as a descriptive term is confined to the experienced Kosmos, as opposed to Wilber's unwarranted leap of assuming that there can be no reality outside the realm of the non-dual Kosmos, which thereby allows him—quite falsely—to identify the non-dual experience as the highest form of religious awareness. Non-dualism can only represent the highest form of religious awareness, if there is no reality outside of or in addition to the non-dual Kosmos; Wilber cannot confirm the non-existence of such a reality beyond the non-dual Kosmos, and therefore, at best, he should confine himself to the position of a non-dual agnostic, taking no position regarding the existence or non-existence of a reality or Being to which he does not have access through any level of the spectrum of consciousness.
If Wilber limited himself to defending the existence of a non-dual experience of the Kosmos, without interpreting this experience as the highest form of religious experience which includes the experience of God, his position might be quite sound. Unfortunately, he places no such limitations on his interpretation of non-dual experience. The awareness of non-duality/Suchness/One Taste, etc. is presented as experience which includes the awareness of God. Indeed, Wilber frequently lumps together theistic and non-dualist terms in describing this ultimate awareness. Referring to the creative ground of the universe as Emptiness, he adds, "but you can call that creative ground whatever you want. Some would call it God or Goddess, or Tao, or Brahman, or Keter, or Rigpa, or Dharmakaya, or Maat, or Li" (Wilber, 1996: 225). Elsewhere, in a similar manner, he states: "Whether Reality is called Brahman, God, Tao, Dharmakaya, Void, or whatever is of no great concern, for all alike point to that state of non-dual Mind, wherein the universe is split into seer and seen" (Wilber, 1977: 67). Wilber can only make such a statement by radically altering what traditional theism means by 'God'. That certain individuals, including perhaps Ken Wilber, experience the Kosmos as a non-dual reality may indeed be the case, but this has nothing to do with what theists assert when they profess belief in a God, who by definition stands outside that Kosmos. To a theist, the unity or non-duality of the created universe, including both material and spiritual dimensions, does by definition not encompass the transcendent God who is the object of theistic belief. Thus, Wilber's error is essentially one of over-extending his interpretation of the meaning of a certain kind of spiritual experience. What he might legitimately refer to as an experience of the non-dual nature of the Kosmos, he instead refers to as an experience of the Kosmos and God.
One can also look at this issue as a matter of competing epistemologies. Granted that certain individuals have an experience which reveals awareness of the non-dual Kosmos, other individuals claim to have an experience of a being that exists outside that Kosmos, i.e. an experience of a transcendent God. Wilber reduces the latter experience to a partial, limited, and ultimately inferior type of spiritual experience that is superseded by the fuller and more complete non-dual experience. On what possible epistemological grounds can Wilber make such a judgment? On what basis can he affirm that the noetic content of the non-dual experience is somehow superior to the noetic content of the theistic awareness of a God that transcends the universe? Again, we do not deny the reality or even the sublime nature of the non-dual experience which Wilber describes; however, we assert that this is not the only type of interior awareness that can be classified as 'spiritual' in nature. Wilber is correct in arguing that at different levels in the spectrum of consciousness, different views of the Kosmos are experienced by the subject. However, what he fails to demonstrate is the basis for asserting that the view achieved in non-dual awareness is superior to the view achieved in theistic awareness. Indeed, to establish such an evaluative viewpoint, Wilber would need to have access to an objective reference point external to both the non-dual and theistic levels and to defend the validity of such a reference point as a meaningful basis for making such judgments. Yet Wilber makes no attempt to establish an outside reference point; instead, he chooses to use non-dualism itself as both the point of reference and the subject of evaluation and produces a somewhat tautological epistemology that seems to assert that through the non-dual mode of awareness, one comes to know that the ultimate nature of the Kosmos is non-dual. This is perhaps not unlike saying that by looking through red lenses, one comes to know that the world is colored red. In both cases, the conclusion is prematurely established by the mode of inquiry or observation and therefore, the epistemological validity of the knowledge acquired is completely undermined.
In the Wilberian model, theism is relegated to the 'mythic' level in the spectrum of consciousness, several levels below the non-dual level. In typical fashion, Wilber is often vague and imprecise in clarifying what he means by mythic-level consciousness and spirituality, lumping together a diverse array of religious beliefs that, while theistic in the most general sense of including belief in a personal deity or deities, often differ in ways that are far more profound than their similarities. Wilber also displays a rather condescending attitude toward theism and the mythic mode of consciousness, which might be appropriate in assessing early theisms which tended to adopt a literal interpretation of the 'personal' aspect of the divine, e.g. deities with human-like bodies behaving in very imperfect, human-like ways. Yet, Wilber pays little attention to more mature forms of theism which interpret the 'personal' with reference to the possession of the perfect form of the highest human qualities, such as wisdom, love, justice, etc. Comparing belief in Zeus to non-dualist spiritual experience may indeed present a contrast which can easily be weighted in favor of non-dualism; however, to compare non-dualism to the mature theism of the likes of Kierkegaard, Martin Buber, Ramanuja, or Teilhard de Chardin makes a comparison between theism and non-dualism much less obviously balanced in favor of non-dualism. When discussing theism, Wilber tends to avoid using examples of mature theism, which would undermine his agenda of demonstrating the supremacy of non-dualism. Even when he discusses the more developed modes of theism, he tends to present them in caricature and exaggerated form, which gives him an opportunity to present theism in a negative light when compared to non-dualism. References to the Biblical God, such as a "mythic-dissociated God ontologically divorced from nature and human nature" and "through and through, a mythic-level production: a geocentric, egocentric, anthropocentric local volcano God" (Wilber, 1995: 350), reflect his tendency to employ oversimplified and consequently inaccurate presentations of the nature of theistic belief, often expressed in a tone that is both condescending and polemical.2
Wilber would apparently be hard pressed to account, for example, for the position adopted by the Jewish theistic existentialist, Martin Buber. Early in his adult life, Buber experienced mystical modes of awareness of the non-dual variety. He used these experiences to write his early book, Ekstatische Konfessionen (Buber, 1909), which uses many of the metaphors and phrases commonly found in non-dualist mystical writings. However, at a critical moment in his life, Buber rejected the non-dual awareness that he had directly tasted, abandoning it in favor of a theism which radically and unequivocally affirmed the otherness and transcendence of God. Buber poetically described this mystical theism in his best known work, I and Thou (Buber, 1970), but he spoke more directly about his deliberate rejection of non-dualism in shorter essays, such as "A Conversion" (Buber, 1973: 45-46) and "With a Monist" (Buber, 1974: 25-30). Our point here is not to explore the details of Buber's rejection of non-dualism and embrace of theism, but rather to cite his spiritual development as an example in which a type of theism is chosen over non-dualism. Wilber does not even seem to consider the possibility that a person might experience both the theistic and non-dualist views of reality and choose to rank the theistic perspective higher than the non-dualist view. Buber's example demonstrates the somewhat arbitrary nature of Wilber's decision to place non-dualism at the pinnacle of the holarchy of modes of consciousness. The non-dual view may seem to Wilber to be somehow more spiritually complete than the theistic view, but he does not provide any sort of compelling argument as to why the supremacy of non-dualism should be seen as anything more than his personal preference. He fails to present criteria that can be used to establish that his positioning of non-dualism over theism reflects some sort of truth about the ways things really are, as opposed to merely the way he would like things to be. Buber not only situates theism as spiritually superior to non-dualism, but he also provides reasons for taking this position,
thereby attempting to demonstrate that his assessment of theism is more than just his personal preference.
Examples of individuals, such as Buber, who have had access to both the non-dual and theistic experiences may be quite rare, but this should not undermine the validity of his position. Indeed, in defending non-dualism Wilber repeatedly remarks that in any given epoch or culture, only a select few have achieved the level of spiritual development that affords access to the non-dual experience. Similarly, one could argue that rarer still are those who achieve the spiritual maturity to view existence from such two radically different perspectives as theism and non-dualism.
While Buber may represent one example of a spiritual person who understands, but does not value non-dualism, Wilber tends to ignore not only Buber, but a whole host of individuals, scattered throughout many cultures over many centuries, who understood, but rejected the sort of pure non-dualism which he advocates. Wilber often supports his position by citing various 'sages' from different religious traditions and cultures (Wilber, 1997: 205), but his scholarship is rather selective in this area, citing those who support his position while ignoring the many who disagree. He frequently refers to Hindu Vedanta, as if all Vedantic theologians supported pure, non-theistic non-dualism. In reality, the non-dualism which Wilber advocates reflects the position of only one of the several chief Vedantic thinkers, that of Shankara. Wilber conveniently ignores Ramanuja, whose influence in Hindu thought is certainly comparable to that of Shankara. Ramanuja supported a 'qualified non-dualism' in which the personality of a theistic God and the eternal individuality of all souls is preserved, both features that are absent in the non-dualism of Wilber and Shankara. Reading Ramanuja, one sees that he had a clear understanding of Shankara's non-dualism; he was not someone who lacked the spiritual development necessary to achieve such a mode of awareness. Yet, fully aware of the nature of the non-dual experience, Ramanuja—like Buber—chose to interpret it as a less profound experience than the awareness of a personal Lord who eternally remains in some sense different from all of creation, including each individual soul. One could also point to the radically dualistic theology of Madhva (thirteenth century), who founded one of the major schools of Vedantic thought. Madhva, quite familiar with the mystical Upanishadic texts and meditative traditions, argued in favor of a view of God as utterly different from the created universe, a God of pure transcendence whose purity cannot be tainted by the corrupt nature of the world. A fundamental component of Madhva's thought is the doctrine of the five fundamental differences, namely eternal and unqualified difference between God and the world, God and souls, between each individual soul, between each soul and the world, and between material substances. Both as a philosopher and as the founder of a school of theistic devotionalism, Madhva was a significant figure in Indian religion, yet nowhere does Wilber include him in his one-sided and biased listing of 'sages'—a list that appears to be reserved for those religious figures who share the Wilberian fondness for non-dualism. By excluding significant figures who did not adopt a non-dualist interpretation of the ultimate religious experience, Wilber conveys the false impression that no such creatures ever existed. Whether out of ignorance (which, given his overall level of erudition, seems unlikely) or out of design, he portrays a false picture of mystical sages universally
interpreting non-dual experience as the highest form of religious experience.3 Wilber's apparent distaste for theism is reflected throughout his writings, in the tendency to diminish, if not exclude, the element of the personal in descriptions of the divine nature. By referring to God as 'personal', traditional theists do not, of course, mean to suggest that God must have the specific attributes of a human being, whether physical or mental. Rather, theism asserts that those qualities of a uniquely good and higher nature that are found in humans must also in some manner be present in the deity, since for God to lack a good possessed by humans would contradict God's nature as a supremely good and perfect being. Hence, in some sense, God wills, loves, knows, creates, etc., although the precise manner in which the attribution of such human characteristics can be assigned to a divine being remains shrouded in mystery.
Wilber's model of holarchies composed of nested holons, each of which 'transcends and includes' the holon of the immediately lower level, would seem to fit quite naturally into a theistic model: spirit, in its fullest manifestation, should not only transcend lower levels of reality, such as human persons, but also include the higher, spiritual aspects of humanness. At times, Wilber in fact describes the highest reality as including rather than excluding the personal element. Thus, in using the word 'transpersonal' to describe the ultimate reality, he declares that transpersonal means "personal plus" rather than "personal minus" (Wilber, 1995: 280). Far more frequent are descriptions of the higher levels of Spirit (at the causal, subtle, and especially non-dual levels) which are completely devoid of any reference to the personal qualities found in the God of theism. Rare references to the preservation of personality are far outnumbered by frequent use of the Buddhist terms Shunyata (Emptiness) and Tathata (Suchness) in describing the Absolute. These are terms which are not attached to any of the personalistic qualities typically associated with the theistic God. Wilber's typical characterization of Spirit in its complete fullness is that of a reality which, although all-encompassing and One, lacks any of the personal qualities that theists associate with God.
Wilber's de-valuation of the personal is apparent not only in his description of non-dual Spirit, but also in his remarks about the nature and role of the individual self. As in many aspects of his thought, his position on the nature of the individual self is far from consistent. His 'transcend and include' model would suggest that something like individual self-consciousness, occurring at an advanced stage in evolution, would in some manner be retained even at the highest and most complete manifestation of Spirit. In places, Wilber occasionally objects to critics who claim that his model eliminates the individual self, but his statements defending the value of the self are rather rare, argued in a brief, weak, and passionless manner that is quite untypical for him and leaves the reader doubtful about his true position.
By contrast, Wilber's works abound with descriptions of the non-dual Spirit in which individual self-consciousness appears to have no role at all. In A Brief History of Everything, for example (Wilber, 1996), he speaks of "puny little subjects and objects that enter the stream of time" (ibid: 223) and elsewhere he seems to delight in affirming that in the non-dual state, "The self is made toast" (Wilber, 1999: 28). Wilber also discusses this issue in The Eye of Spirit (Wilber, 1997b), particularly with reference to Michael Washburn's criticism that in the Wilberian model, there is no role for the ego in the highest stages of spiritual
development. However, his response is quite difficult to fathom and seems to suggest that the only self-awareness that exists at the highest level is awareness of the non-dual Divine Self (ibid: 149-150).
The above remarks regarding the de-valuation of the personal in Wilber's thought are not intended as a criticism of the internal coherence of the Wilberian system itself. Given Wilber's decision to elevate non-dualism to the highest level of spiritual reality, the diminished role assigned to the individual and the personal follows quite logically, with the same internal consistency as one sees, for instance, in the theology of Shankara. Writing from a theistic perspective, our concern is, however, simply to point out the contrast between Wilber's non-dual system, in which individual personality is radically de-valued, if not extinguished, and the theistic alternative, in which the personal is affirmed as something quite exceptional, precious, and spiritually valued in all of its glorious limitedness and individuality. Wilber points to a type of inner experience that seems to reveal the non-dual nature of reality and in this non-dual reality, the individual disappears; theists point to a different type of inner experience, in which there is an awareness of a Being that is other than the Kosmos and in some sense personal in nature and an awareness of the goodness and spiritual nature of the limited, individual, created personal entities that populate the Kosmos.
The limited significance with which Wilber views the individual self can also be connected to another aspect of his thought that is viewed critically from a theistic perspective, namely the tendency to assign a secondary role (at best) to ethics in the spiritual life. As with many other aspects of his thought, he seems to want to have it both ways regarding the importance of ethics in spiritual development: while occasionally asserting that the development of non-dual consciousness occurs only in the context of ethical behavior, his overall neglect of ethics and his peculiar separation of ethical development from spiritual development in his notion of 'lines' of development suggest that cultivation of ethical virtues is relegated to a position far below that of the cultivation of a particular mode of consciousness in his system.
In fairness to Wilber, it certainly cannot be said that ethics play no role at all in his system. Indeed, throughout his works, one finds periodic references to the nature of ethical development and the specific character of ethical commitment at the transpersonal level, often presented with reference to the ethical theory of Lawrence Kohlberg (see Wilber, 2000: 44-47). In A Brief History of Everything, for example, while discussing the non-dual experience he adds that "all of this occurs within some very strong ethical frameworks... 'Crazy wisdom' occurs in a very strict ethical atmosphere" (Wilber, 1996: 239). He also includes ethical truth in his four-quadrant model that constitutes the basis of his 'integral' vision. Thus, "We are interested, that is, not only in the truth, not simply in truthfulness, and not merely in functional fit: we are interested in justness, rightness, goodness, and fairness" (Wilber, 1997: 17).
Yet, the occasional references to the importance of ethical behavior as part of spiritual development seem rather empty in the context of the much greater amount of space devoted exclusively to the examination of the inner mystical experience as the key component of spirituality. In the index, for example, of his longest work, Sex, Ecology, Spirituality (Wilber, 1995), only four entries are found under the heading 'ethics'. Lengthy and detailed descriptions of the nature and
importance of meditative practice as a means of obtaining a mode of consciousness, in which awareness of non-duality emerges clearly, give the reader the impression that—from Wilber's point of view—this is what spirituality is all about. Typical of most gnostic spiritualities (using 'gnostic' in the broad sense), Wilber's work identifies the acquisition of correct knowledge (awareness of the non-dual) as the highest goal of spiritual development, with ethical behavior relegated to no more than a secondary component of the spiritual path.
Wilber's assessment of the role of ethics becomes more apparent in his discussion of what he refers to as the 'lines of human development'. He identifies over a dozen different areas, or 'lines', in which human beings develop and evolve over time. They include, for instance, areas, such as affect, morality, cognition, aesthetics, creativity, and spirituality.4 His position is that each of these areas of human development can progress at different rates and to different degrees. Thus, for example, an individual with a highly developed and refined sense of aesthetics might simultaneously be emotionally immature; someone with a remarkable capacity to think logically (say, a master chess player) might have little or no capacity to think creatively. These may seem fairly commonplace observations, but when spirituality is introduced as a line of development, Wilber's model leads to a position that radically departs from what one finds in most religious traditions, whether theistic or otherwise.
Specifically, by positing spirituality as a line of development that can be separated from the line of moral development, Wilber suggests that legitimate spiritual development can occur in the absence of comparable moral development. In this model, 'spiritual' is understood primarily in terms of acquisition of states of consciousness or levels of awareness of Spirit, the highest level being awareness of non-duality. Acquisition of a particular mode of knowing or type of consciousness is interpreted as a spiritual accomplishment, even if that accomplishment is not accompanied by moral maturity and ethical behavior. Thus, his model leaves room for the gurus of 'crazy wisdom' whose access to non-ordinary modes of awareness is accompanied by varieties of unethical behavior, without thereby losing the legitimacy of their position as 'spiritual' masters. This is reflected in Wilber's defense of the controversial figure Adi Da (also known as Bubba Free John), a contemporary American 'guru' who has been charged with numerous abusive practices by former followers. Even while acknowledging the charges of physical, emotional, and sexual abuse leveled against Da, Wilber persists in defending his status as a spiritual 'realizer', given his claims to achieving so-called 'higher' states of consciousness.5
Commenting on the supposed commonplace nature of this separation of the moral and spiritual, Wilber writes:
We all know of spiritual teachers who have glimpsed very high stages of spiritual and/or cognitive development, while their moral, affective, defense, object-relations, and interpersonal lines are very poorly developed—often with disastrous consequences. Moreover, the great traditions themselves often emphasize the spiritual line alone ... and thus they severely neglect the interpersonal, affective, and psychological lines, so that they remain, as it were, the last place to look for help in these areas. (Wilber, 1997: 227)
Students of world religions are likely to find this statement quite puzzling in that most religious traditions and especially theistic traditions quite explicitly posit an intimate connection between the lines of development and, in particular, between the moral and spiritual lines, so that acquisition of a non-ordinary mode of consciousness which is not accompanied by moral awareness and ethical behavior is not assessed as being 'spiritual' at all. Theisms of many varieties portray God, who is in some sense other than the Kosmos, as the source of moral law; establishing a right relationship with that God, which constitutes being 'spiritual', necessarily includes aligning one's inner disposition and external behavior with that divinely-originated moral law. Any 'spirituality' that lacks that moral element is a false spirituality.
Wilber's strange and inaccurate remarks about the 'great traditions' which support his separation of the moral and spiritual lines clearly reflect his tendency to be highly selective in the sources from which he derives his data. While it may be true that there are various examples of self-proclaimed 'masters' who advocated freedom from moral restrictions as part of the higher spiritual path, these are clearly the exceptions to the norm in which the moral is seen as an inseparable part of the spiritual. Even in most Buddhist teachings, from which Wilber appears to derive many of his views, moral development is seen as a necessary pre-requisite to the development of the inner tranquillity that leads to enlightenment. There are, of course, exceptions in Buddhism, as seen in some aspects of Zen and even more so in tantric forms of Buddhism, but these also represent departures from the norm. In the early Pali sutras, which are more likely to represent the actual teaching of Gautama, morality, right views, and meditation are consistently closely linked as inseparable and indispensable components of the quest for enlightenment. Wilber's willingness to separate these traditionally linked elements is indicative of his affinity with other modern advocates of spirituality-as-altered-states thinking, in which the value of moral behavior is ignored or diminished, while private inner experiences are elevated to sacred status.
With the recent release of yet another book (A Theory of Everything, in September 2000) and further works already in production (including major sequels to the massive Sex, Ecology, Spirituality), it appears that Ken Wilber will continue to be at the forefront of promoting the ideas of transpersonal psychology well into the twenty-first century. If his work and the field of transpersonal psychology are to achieve broader acceptance in the larger academic community, Wilber will need to respond to analysis and criticism that comes from sources other than his fellow transpersonalists. This article is an attempt to present just a few of the many issues that individuals from outside the transpersonalist movement might pose to Wilber for further discussion and clarification.
To repeat an earlier point: our purpose is not to question the reality of the internal states described by Wilber. There is sufficient cross-cultural and historical evidence to conclude that such internal experiences indeed occur. The question is: what are they and what do they mean? It is on the question of interpretation of internal experiences that Wilber's system falters. Wilber fails to defend the validity of his practice of interpreting these internal experiences as
epistemologically sound means of gaining access to valid knowledge about the true nature of extra-pyschic reality. Similarly, he fails to provide convincing arguments to explain why his interpretation of those experiences should be considered more valid than the theist's quite different interpretations of the same internal experiences. Finally, he fails to demonstrate why the non-dualist religious experience should be considered superior to the religious experience of theists, an experience which asserts and values the otherness of God. From this epistemological issue, other issues follow: the de-valuation of the personal, the separation of the ethical and the spiritual, Wilber's selective, non-representative use of sources, and others. The future status of Wilber's work and the field of transpersonal psychology will in part be a product of how successfully Wilber responds to these and other challenges from non-transpersonalist commentators.6
George Adams is an instructor in Religion and Philosophy in the Department of Continuing Education at Susquehanna University in Selinsgrove, Pennsylvania, USA. Correspondence: Department of Continuing Education, University Avenue, Susquehanna University, Selinsgrove, PA 17870, USA, e-mail: email@example.com or adamsg@susqu. edu
1. For a sample of Wilber's appeal to a non-academic audience, see the posts on the 'Ken Wilber Forum' which is accessible via
2. A typical example of Wilber's harsh and polemical treatment of Christian theism can be found in Sex, Ecology, Spirituality (Wilber, 1995: 350 ff). The tone of this section is markedly non-scholarly, replete with sarcasm, condescension, and outrageous statements.
3. Wilber also conveniently disregards earlier scholarship which called attention to aspects of Indic thought which elevate the personal God over the impersonal Brahman (see, for instance, Zaehner, 1974: 102 ff).
4. For Wilber's most recent and detailed presentation of the developmental lines, see Integral Psychology (Wilber, 2000a).
5. See D. C. Lane's criticism of Wilber's defense of the controversial American guru Adi Da, at
6. The editors of the Journal of Contemporary Religion invited Ken Wilber to prepare a response to this paper for publication in the Journal. However, he had not responded to their invitation by the time this issue went to press.
Buber, Martin. Ekstatische Konfessionen. Jena: Eugen die Derichs, 1909.
Buber, Martin. Pointing the Way. New York: Schocken Books, 1974.
Buber, Martin. I and Thou. New York: Charles Scribner's, 1970.
Buber, Martin. Meetings. Edited by Maurice Friedman. LaSalle: Open Court, 1973.
May, Rollo. "Answer to Ken Wilber and John Rowan" Journal of Humanistic Psychology 29 (2), 1989: 244-245.
Schneider, Kirk. "The Deified Self: A 'Centaur' Response to Wilber and the Transpersonal Movement." Journal of Humanistic Psychology 27 (2), 1987: 196-216.
Wilber, Ken. Sex, Ecology, Spirituality: The Spirit of Evolution. Boston: Shambala, 1995.
Wilber, Ken. A Brief History of Everything. Boston: Shambala Publications, 1996.
Wilber, Ken. The Spectrum of Consciousness. Wheaton, 111.: Quest Books, 1977.
Wilber, Ken. The Eye of Spirit: An Integral Vision for a World Gone Slightly Mad. Boston: Shambala, 1997.
Wilber, Ken. The Marriage of Sense and Soul: Integrating Science and Religion. New York: Broadway, 1998.
Wilber, Ken. One Taste: The Journals of Ken Wilber. Boston: Shambala, 1999.
Wilber, Ken. Integral Psychology: Consciousness, Spirit, Psychology, Therapy. Boston: Shambala, 2000a.
Wilber, Ken. A Theory of Everything. Boston: Sambala, 2000b.
York, Michael. "Emergentism and Some Post-Big Bang Perspectives." Journal of Contemporary Religion 14 (2), 1999: 291-297.
Zaehner, R. C. Zen, Drugs, and Mysticism. New York: Vintage Books, 1972.