Buchanan, John H. “Whitehead and Wilber: Contrasts in Theory.” An Esalen Conference Paper [Transpersonal and Process Thought Conference: March 17-22, 1996]: 1-35.
Buchanan, John H. "Mystical Experiences in a Whiteheadian Universe." August 4-9, 1998.
Deep Spirit: Integralism (cont'd)-2
But this is not at all to dismiss, as Wilber does, the possibility of providing a rationally coherent solution, albeit infused with some extrarational shafts of wisdom. Whitehead has provided a solution, within the limits of reason. Wilber asks us to wait for when consciousness grows beyond reason. He asks us to have faith in “promissory idealism” or “promissory integralism”:
“Therefore, the ‘proof’ for this nondual solution can only be found in the further development of the consciousness of those who seek to know the solution” (IP, p. 181).
Like I said, this is less a “solution” to the hard problem than it is an epistemological “promissory note.” Wilber is clearly aware, however, that his model cannot really deliver on that promise. When it comes to explaining how mind and body, or interior and exterior, are related he, not surprisingly, declines to make the attempt: “It does not matter ‘how’ this [mind-body interaction] happens; that ‘how,’ I am suggesting is more fully disclosed at the postrational, nondual waves” (IP, p. 184).
Wilber offers his four-quadrant model—that shows how UL, UR, LL, and LR co-evolve, or, as he likes to say, “tetra-evolve.” But at the crucial point where “subjective intentionality [UL] and objective behavior [UR] . . . mutually interact,” along with cultural worldviews (LL) and social structures (LR) (pp. 183-184), he tells us that it doesn’t matter “how” the interaction occurs. “It is only necessary to acknowledge that this interaction seems phenomenologically undeniable” (p. 184).
Experientially and phenomenologically he is correct: We are in little doubt that mind and body interact. But the mind-body problem is not about the fact of interaction; it is about explaining that fact. And telling us they interact through “will and response” (p. 184) merely restates the problem.
If we are, rightly I believe, skeptical of promissory materialism, should we be any more credulous of “promissory integralism,” which—from the perspective of rationality—amounts to about the same explanatory currency as “and then a miracle occurred”?
[Note: “Miracles” are a measure or indication of our ignorance. When we don't understand how something could happen, but want to insist that it did happen nevertheless, we invoke the non-explanation of “miracle.”
This is not to say real miracles can never occur. It just means that if they do, they are beyond our ken. Miracles lie beyond the pale of knowledge. As far as epistemology is concerned, the great problem with miracles is this: By what criteria do we decide when to invoke their occurrence? What are the rules of evidence by which we decide when and where to insert a “miracle” into our explanations, revealing a breakdown in our sequence of reasoning?
If miracles are evidence of our ignorance, what prevents us from invoking a miracle every time we are at a loss to explain something? (Science replaced magic as a method of knowledge because it did not accept gaps in explanation—in contrast, magic invoked spirits and miracles when something happened beyond the reach of the knowledge of the time.) If we allow miracles to pepper our explanations, then what’s to stop any of us resorting to “and then a miracle occurred” every time we fail to understand anything? Why bother with seeking any explanations at all? Why not just say “it’s all a miracle” and leave it at that?]
Panpsychism and Whitehead
Related to his unsatisfactory treatment of the mind-body problem is Wilber’s problematic characterization of panpsychism. It is really his own invention, another “straw man,” easy to knock down, but of little practical value because it does not inform us about real panpsychism.
His “straw panpsychism” is expressed in his most interesting and most lengthy (seven pages) endnote in IP on the mind-body problem. Having just acknowledged that every exterior has an interior all the way down, he says that this “would appear to involve some sort of panpsychism.” Agreed. But since panpsychism is not Wilber’s pet ontology, (not obviously integralism in the form of the Great Chain of Being and the four quadrants), he resorts to his own version of “panpsychism.”
“Every major form of panpsychism equates “interiors” with a particular type of interior (such as feelings, awareness, soul, etc.), and then attempts to push thattype all the way down to the fundamental units of the universe (quarks, atoms, strings, or some such)” (p. 276).
“Most schools of panpsychism take one of those interiors—such as feeling or soul—and maintain that all entities possess it (atoms have feelings, cells have a soul) and this I categorically reject [emphasis added] (p. 277).
The problem with this characterization is that it fails to acknowledge that, for instance, when Whitehead uses “feelings” or “prehensions” he means what Wilber means by “interiors.” The difference is that Whitehead then goes on to propose how feelings/interiority are related to the world of exterior objects. Wilber does not.
If Wilber posits interiors all the way down, and rejects feeling, then either: Feeling emerges discontinuously, or some trace of feeling must exist in the “all-way-down” interiors.
Here’s the dilemma: (i) What could “interiority” mean if it doesn’t have something of the sense of “feeling,” “prehension,” “sentience,” experience,” “subjectivity”? (ii) If “interiority” doesn’t have any trace of prehension or feeling, etc. then Wilber leaves himself wide open to the kind of “emergent miracle” that materialists face when claiming that consciousness can emerge from wholly mindless matter. If “interiority” is whollywithout anything resembling feeling or prehension etc., then the jump from wholly non-feeling/prehension to even some minute feeling/prehension requires an ontological miracle.
If Wilber’s critique of materialism is valid (and I believe it is), then he can’t have it both ways: The same critique leveled at his ontological emergence is equally valid. (The reverse of this problem faces idealists who claim that pure Spirit [wholly without a trace of anything physical or objective] “emanates” real objective, real physical matter.) What’s happening here is either Wilber engaging in one-upmanship word quibbling, or he is committing the “emergence fallacy.”
Wilber does not distinguish between “tokens” and “types,” two key concepts in philosophy of mind. What he calls “types” are actually “tokens,” so that in one sense “feelings,” “awareness,” “souls” are all tokens of the same type (“mental,” “experiential,” “interior”), in contrast to “neurons,” “synapses,” “brains,” which are all tokens of the same type (matter, body). In this sense it is true that tokens do not go all the way down, but any particular type does—both interiors and exteriors (consciousness and matter) go all the way. This is Whitehead’s position, and it is pure panpsychism.
However, in another sense feelings equal interiors, and hence “feelings” (as used by Whitehead) refer to ontological type. It is in this sense that Whitehead (and Griffin and I) say that feelings (or sentience or experience) go all the way down. This is no different (other than chosen terminology) from Wilber’s position on interiors. Hence, he is either splitting terminological hairs, or attacking a straw man.
When he says, “I am a pan-interiorist, not a pan-experientialist, pan-mentalist, pan-feelingist, or pan-soulist” (IP, p. 276-277), he is word quibbling. This only distracts from the more significant point that, whether you call it “interior,” “experience,” “feeling,” “prehension,” or “consciousness,” the fact remains that thatontological type must go all the way down if we are even to begin to have a coherent, rational solution to the mind-body problem.
Wilber is saying nothing more than what panpsychists such as Whitehead, Hartshorne, Griffin, and I mean when we say the “tokens” or forms of experience, sentience, or subjectivity show a developmental unfolding—e.g., from prehension to self-reflective consciousness (Whitehead ; Hartshorne ; Griffin ; de Quincey ).
Wilber “categorically rejects” taking any one of those tokens and pushing it all the way down. So do Whitehead, Hartshorne, Griffin and I. Like Wilber, we all recognize that non-objective reality evolves from dim, primitive tokens of that type to higher and higher varieties of it. So, again, Wilber is “categorically rejecting” not panpsychism, but his own mischaracterization: “straw panpsychism.”
In IP, he says, “interior feelings correlate with objective limbic system” (p. 70), as if only creatures with limbic systems could feel (what about worms?). Yet in his four-quadrant graph, he correlates emotion with the limbic system (p. 62 graph). Thus, he equates feelings with emotions. Clearly limbic systems do not go all the way down, so given Wilber’s correlation of both feelings and emotions with limbic systems, it is not surprising that, for him, neither feelings nor emotions go all the way.
But this is not what panpsychists claim: They do not push the kind of feelings or emotions associated with limbic systems all the way down. In the panpsychist view emotions are higher-order tokens of the type “feelings” (prehension, experience, interiority, it’s all the same type). In fact, in his four quadrants, Wilber does place Whitehead’s prehension at the base of his system of cognitive development (in UL). For Whitehead, prehension is synonymous with feeling; nevertheless Wilber denies feeling goes all the way down.
However, Wilber is himself hesitant, reflecting perhaps some confusion, about how far down to “push” consciousness, sentience, or interiority. On the one hand, in his critique of Whitehead’s and Griffin’s panpsychism, as we’ve seen, he is explicit that he does not want to accept that “feelings” or “prehensions” go all the way down—only interiors. In a previous chapter, however, he wavers about how far down not only he is willing to “push” consciousness or sentience, but even interiors:
“How far ‘down’ you wish to push interiors or consciousness is, of course, up to you. Some people push it down to mammals, others to reptiles, others to plants, others all the way down to atoms. I find this a completely relative issue: however much consciousness one holon has—say, an amoeba—a senior holon has a little more—say, a deer—and its senior has even more—say, a gorilla. The lower on the Great Nest, the less sentience a holon has, until it fades into the shades that we cannot detect”(IP, p. 162).
At this point, Wilber seems to be equating interiors, consciousness, and sentience (as, in fact, I do, too). But in his panpsychism critique he opts to distinguish interiors from sentience, prehension, feeling, and consciousness. Panpsychists would agree with his characterization in the section quoted above that, as we retrace evolution, whatever sentience a holon has it “fades into the shades” at lower phylogenetic levels.
But “fading into the shades” does not, cannot, mean fading out of existence altogether (otherwise, we face the “miracle of emergence”). It means, rather, that sentience becomes so dilute, so primitive, so primordial, it hardly resembles anything we are familiar with at the level of human sentience and consciousness. But, even in the “shades,” the light is not completely out—something of the nature of sentience, consciousness, subjectivity is present in trace form even at the level of atoms, electrons, quarks or quanta.
Wilber criticizes Whitehead for being “monological”—which is Wilber’s code for Cartesianism, a “philosophy of the subject monologically accessing a pregiven world,” a philosophy that fails to include “a dialogical investigation of the intersubjective structures that allow subjects and objects to differentiate and appear in the first place” (EoS, p. 168).
But this critique misses the significance of Whitehead’s emphasis on “concrescence.” Not only does each subject prehend its ancestors as objects (“now subject, then object), each subject is constituted by its ancestral objects. As subjects, we are necessarily in dialogue with our own past as objects—in fact, according to Whitehead, with the history of the entire universe. In Whitehead, subjects and objects co-create each other in time.
Critiquing Whitehead, therefore, for not recognizing that every subject arises only in intersubjective space is incorrect. Whitehead’s subjects very clearly arise in the intersubjective “space” of universal concrescence. If each subject is constituted by every other subject, how much more intersubjective can you get? The fact that the “constituting” ingredients of each new subject are prior “expired subjects” (Whitehead’s “objects”) does not diminish access to the being or knowledge of those “subjects-become-objects.” Although “expired”—although each prior subject’s moment of experience has passed—the actuality of that subject’s being or interiority gains new life as an ingredient of each subsequent subject. The past literally lives on in the present. Past-objects are vital constituents of now-subjects. This “conservation of experience” (de Quincey, 2000c), this flowing of past subjects into now subjects establishes Whitehead’s ontology and epistemology as radically constitutively intersubjective. Wilber’s critique betrays a limited grasp of the profound implications of Whitehead’s process metaphysics.
Whitehead is clear and explicit:
“The subject-object relation takes its origin in the double role of these eternal objects. They are modifications of the subject, but only in their character of conveying aspects of other subjects in the community of the universe. Thus no individual subject can have independent reality, since it is a prehension of limited aspects of subjects other than itself” (1925, p. 151).
For Whitehead, then, all subjects arise in a vast network of interrelated subjects or intersubjects. What Whitehead doesn’t have, something essential to Wilber, is the Great Nest or Chain of Being in addition to the Great Network of Being. For that, we would need to augment Whitehead with Aurobindo.
I agree with Wilber that Whitehead’s ontology is an “incomplete holarchy.” The levels of the Great Nest are missing. And if this is what Wilber means by “monological,” then so be it. However, he also uses “monological” to mean something else: a reduction of all communication to exchanges between Cartesian (individual, isolated) subjects. In this case, the labels can be switched: Wilber is monological (per my critique of his “intersubjectivity”), Whitehead is dialogical.
Wilber also uses “monological” to mean “flatland”—i.e., gross reduction of all levels of reality to the atomistic physical (UR), or “subtle reductionism” to physical systems (LR). But this most definitely is not what Whitehead does. He does not reduce interiority to the physical—quite the opposite, in fact. Nor does he reduce all interiority to prehension. True, he is not as explicit about the hierarchy of interiors (per the Great Nest), as Wilber is. But this does not mean Whitehead failed to acknowledge the complexity of interiority. In Process and Reality , he explicitly emphasizes that the subject-object, or interior-exterior, relationship complexifies with evolution. Whitehead is very clear that the prehension of an electron is qualitatively different (a “lower grade,” to use his term) from human prehension.
This is not “flatland,” and it is a serious misreading of Whitehead to say he reduces all interiority to pre-conscious prehension. Whitehead does more than explore a variety of prehensions (conceptual, hybrid, impure, negative, and physical). His philosophy of organism accounts for all the multiplicity of varieties and levels of prehension/experience/sentience/subjectivity/interiority from quanta to human beings ... and from there to God.
Wilber’s critique that Whitehead makes a big jump from humans to God is valid. This is where Whitehead misses out on the perspective of transpersonal psychologists (not surprising, since they hadn’t yet appeared on the scene).
Whitehead, as Wilber points out, does not account for transrational stages of interiority (except for God). And had he had access to Aurobindo’s work, this very well might have rounded out his cosmology. Thankfully, we now have the likes of Wilber to pick up the task. However, this will happen only if Wilber builds on a fair and accurate interpretation of Whitehead.
Bottom line: Whitehead no more reduces all interiority to prehension than Wilber “elevates” all interiority to Spirit. Both recognize a spectrum of “grades” of interiority.
Furthermore, Wilber is on shaky ground when he questions Whitehead’s relevance to transpersonal psychology/philosophy because he didn’t have transpersonal experiences:
“[A]lthough some theorists (such as John Buchanan) believe that Whitehead fits the bill as the great transpersonal philosopher, I believe Whitehead fails that task in the most essential respects (much as I admire him otherwise). To give only the most obvious examples: in order to actually awaken to the nondual Kosmos, as we have seen, one must attain subject permanence (the unbroken continuity of awareness through waking, dream and sleep states).
Without that as an actual yogic or contemplative accomplishment in consciousness, there is no corresponding mode of knowing that will disclose the Real.This yogic injunction, exemplar, or practice is the real transpersonal paradigm,and without it (or something similar to it) you have no authentic transpersonal anything. . . . Whitehead doesn’t even come close. This is not a secondary issue; it is the precise heart of the entire matter, a heart that Whitehead completely lacks” (EoS, p. 350).
It is speculation to conclude, as Wilber does, that Whitehead had no rigorous spiritual practice just because there is nothing explicit about his “yoga” in any of his writings or in his biographies. For one thing, Whitehead was, by all accounts, a very religious, even spiritual, man who had a profound sense of the numinous, of divinity in all things. And as for lacking rigorous spiritual practice, it would be very easy to argue that he exemplified as much as anyone the path of “jana yoga,” the yoga of the intellect. To deny this as a spiritual path would amount to very unspiritual “spiritual snobbishness.” Whitehead’s entire speculative cosmology was aimed at integrating the divine and the world of nature—a true evolutionary panentheist.
Whitehead may not have had the distinctions or the language categories that arrived on the scene in the Sixties with the birth of the transpersonal movement, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t have (what we today call) transpersonal experiences. (In fact, in an essay published in 1948, “Uniformity and Contingency,” Whitehead describes a remarkable lucid dream [pp. 145-146].) Personally, from my readings of Whitehead, I have very little doubt that he did have such experiences—and not just as “states,” but as a “stage” or “stages.”
The Human Consciousness Project
Up to this point, my critique of Wilber has focused on some problematic “details” in his model—important details that, I believe, have ramifications for his cosmology as a whole. I’d now like to focus on the “big picture,” and on the practical implications of his work.
Notwithstanding some of the theoretical and logical difficulties buried in the details of Wilber’s vast and comprehensive model, his overall contribution has been immense. More than any other individual, he has pieced together a truly remarkable map of the mind.
If we learn one unavoidable fact from Wilber, it’s that the world of the mind, the interior life, is at least as complex and differentiated and interrelated as the immense complexities of the outer world revealed by physical sciences. Wilber’s integral psychology alerts us to the baffling complexity of consciousness.
Whereas modern science tends to simplistically divide the world into outer-physical and inner-mental, and modern philosophy of mind focuses on the mind-body relationship, Wilber, drawing on a wide spectrum of psycho-spiritual disciplines and traditions, has documented and chartered the immense complexity of the inner domain—not just the id, ego, and superego of psychotherapy, but a whole host of characters and developmental sets through which we play out our life’s dramas. (e.g., developmental levels of the self; levels/waves, structures, the navigating self; and each wave with its multiple self-streams [identity, needs, emotion, etc.])
Wilber highlights the significance of integral psychology by proposing the intriguing idea of the “Human Consciousness Project” (TOE, p. 7). Based on the mapping of consciousness found in cross-cultural variations of the Great Chain of Being, on the one hand, and the “waves and streams” of consciousness mapped by Clare Graves, Don Beck and Christopher Cowan, along with Wilber’s own formulation of the four quadrants, on the other, we now have a blueprint for an “all-level, all-quadrant” model of consciousness—equivalent to, if not surpassing in scope and importance, the Human Genome Project.
As an example of the complexity involved in weaving together the Human Consciousness Project, here are just some of the streams of development Wilber identifies (following Don Beck’s Spiral Dynamics)—what he calls “self streams” that evolve through the multiple levels of the Great Chain or Nest:
“We have credible evidence that these different streams, lines, or modules include cognition, morals, self-identity, psychosexuality, ideas of the good, role taking, socioemotional capacity, creativity, altruism, several lines that can be called “spiritual” (care, openness, concern, religious faith, meditative stages), communicative competence, modes of space and time, affect/emotion, death-seizure, needs, worldviews, mathematical competence, musical skills, kinesthetics, gender identity, defense mechanisms, interpersonal capacity, and empathy” (TOE, p. 44).
In an endnote, he goes on to say, “Individuals can be at a relatively high level of development in some modules, medium in others, and low in still others—there is nothing linear about overall development” (TOE, p. 142).
If we factor in cross-cultural differences, and attempt to map these self-developmental streams as they move, independently, through the many levels, stages, and structures of the Great Nest (Wilber identifies at least seventeen levels on the spectrum of consciousness ranging from prehension at the least developed end—through various levels of sensation, perception, emotion, symbolic, concrete operational, formal operational, to vision-logic, psychic, subtle, causal—all the way up to the nondual consciousness of full-blown enlightenment), and recognize that the movement of these streams flows in nonlinear loops and spirals, andthen multiply this mind-boggling complexity by four (to accommodate the quadrants) we begin to get some idea of the immense task facing the Human Consciousness Project. Do the math: Without factoring in cross-cultural differences, or loops or spirals, we have at least 31 streams, 17 levels, and 4 quadrants, giving us a minimum of 2,108 consciousness variables to track as each individual person develops his or her matrix of “intelligences” or “competencies” in life.
The disconcerting question, of course, is how to keep track of all this?No wonder so many of us have difficulty navigating through the maze of cognitive, emotional, behavioral, cultural, and social complexities that face us daily as we try to deal with the vagaries of life. No surprise, then, if many of us suspect that the diagnosis “multiple personality” refers not merely to a pathology, or even to an anomaly, but to the intrinsic conditionof human consciousness. How can we possibly keep up with so many developmental challenges? How can we ever learn to corral this overpopulated society of selves that is each of us? Is such a complex, multi-dimensional typology of consciousness more likely to overwhelm us than enlighten us?
Once the Human Consciousness Project gets underway, we will, presumably, have a growing awareness and insight into what makes each of us “tick” psychologically. We may be able to help individuals assess or diagnose their states and stages of consciousness as it grows and spirals throughout life. Perhaps, we may even devise psychometric tools to monitor periodic (monthly, weekly, daily, hourly?) swings in consciousness—and, even more important, develop an essential curriculum, practices that will enable people to consciously develop their own consciousness in whatever areas of the spectrum appropriate for them at any particular time.
Wilber’s Integral Psychology(and his Collected Worksin general) provides the best “first-pass” outline for integrating the multiple disciplines engaged, one way or another, in the study of consciousness. In a manner comparable to how the Human Genome Project gave a specific focus and purpose to genetics, the Human Consciousness Project could give a pragmatic purpose and focus to the broad, and currently fragmented, field of consciousness studies. If such a project ever gets off the ground, Wilber will be, rightly, lauded for his single-minded passion and determination to create an integral foundation for the study of consciousness.
Again, however, there is need for caution. The motivation behind developing such a comprehensive map of human consciousness may indeed be to understand ourselves in greater depth, helping us to reduce psycho-spiritual suffering, and to grow toward our full potential. However, the project of developing a detailed cartography of consciousness using the tools of analysis and modeling may leave some people feeling that consciousness or spirit is being reduced to, or squeezed into, neat rational categories—missing what is most precious and vital about lived experience, in much the way that the details of the Human Genome Project, despite potential for improving human health, cannot enlighten us about the experience of being a living, social, organism.
Questions raised in this paper about details in Wilber’s theory of everything indicate deeper challenges to his model as a whole. To recap: As long as he restricts intersubjectivity to “only” linguistic exchanges he leaves one quadrant vacant, and the entire structure tilts like a three-legged table. His promissory integralism as a “solution” to the mind-body problem leaves the causal relationship between the exterior and interior domains of his quadrants an unsolved mystery.
We have no idea, from Wilber, how these two fundamental domains of reality interact. His critique of Whitehead and panpsychism, and his “categorical rejection” of the ontological significance of feeling, begs questions about emergence. We are left wondering how the jump from wholly non-feeling interiors to any kind of feeling at all could ever occur without the intervention of a miracle.
Indeed, Wilber’s approach to all three issues—intersubjectivity, mind-body problem, and panpsychism—reveals an underlying problem with feeling. The felt-relational quality of the shared experience of “We” is missing from his “intersubjectivity.” The hard problem of explaining how feelings are in the body is left unanswered. And, as just noted, his treatment of panpsychism is founded on a categorical rejection of ontologically fundamental feeling.
As a result, for all its rational magnificence, Wilber’s grand edifice has a kind of robotic quality—or, to use a favorite metaphor of philosophers of mind, it comes across as a kind of Zombie World, lacking any felt interiority. Despite Wilber’s major emphasis on the importance of including interior domains, we can come away from the four quadrants feeling “there’s nobody home.”
And yet . . .