Tuesday, May 6, 2008

What is Ken Wilber Selling?

I just finished reading ‘The Simple Feeling of Being’, a 2004 compilation of Ken Wilber's works assembled by a group of his disciples. As a not especially spiritual person, I was surprised at how much he said that I could agree with once I translated certain key terms from his terminology to mine. There is nonetheless a huge gulf separating our points of view. The basis of this chasm is that Wilber is a mystic while I am a rationalist.

In my world view a mystic is someone whose metaphysical belief structure is based on an ineffable absolute whose impenetrable nature undermines our capacity to rationally understand reality. By contrast, I regard a rationalist as someone who believes it is possible to answer the primal metaphysical questions regarding our origin, purpose and ultimate destiny, by extrapolating information from the world around us.

My real problem with Ken Wilber is that he is a mystic in rationalist’s clothing. Wilber claims that his beliefs are supported by empirical evidence gleaned from the world around us, thus implying that the former can somehow be derived from the latter. But it is obvious to me that he actually starts out with pre-existing mystic beliefs and simply cherry picks the rational positions that support it.

In reading through Wilber’s works, it becomes evident that he does not actually explain the system he is describing. From his expositions it is obvious that all roads lead to the ineffable entity that he refers to as Spirit, Kosmos, One Taste and other mystical appellations. To rationally apprehend Wilber’s system you must understand this absolute entity. But every time Wilber traverses an expository sequence (filled with incessant jargoning and non-stop scholastic and spiritual name-dropping), he always comes back to Spirit. At this point he invariably ceases any effort at explaining and starts describing things in poetically paradoxical terms.

The poetic paradox ploy is a common dodge used by mystics to convince audiences that the ultimate answers they seek are incredibly beautiful (hence the poetry) but rationally impenetrable (thus the paradox). This maneuver represents a classic bait-and-switch scheme. After leading the reader to the precipice with “rational” insights, when it is time for the payoff, we are told that we have to abandon rationality to go beyond this point. As an individual who has found my own rational answers to the ultimate questions, I find this gambit to be somewhat disingenuous.

There are only two possible explanations for why Wilber would do such a thing. One is that he does not know the rational answers underlying the world around us and the other is that he does. I would prefer to believe that he is simply ignorant. Since he consistently insists that there are no rational answers to the ultimate questions, I am willing to give him the benefit of the doubt and conclude that he believes he is selling used cars as new (age old answers dressed up in contemporary terminology) and not snake oil (discredited superstitions) to cancer patients (angst-ridden truth seekers).

Bear in mind that while I have obvious problems with Wilber’s approach, on an essential level I agree with a good deal of what he as to say in the realm of metaphysics. The fact that his mystic interpretation of reality has much in common with my rational one indicates to me that underlying all of his grandiose claims, there is valid knowledge in his source frameworks. I point beyond him to his sources because there is nothing at the core of his system that a Hindu guru or Buddhist lama from millennia ago would have trouble understanding. Wilber seems to be simply going through the various sciences and philosophies of the mind and “integrating” positions that are consistent with ancient Dharmic, Daoic and Abrahamic beliefs. The convergence I see between Wilber’s interpretations of these beliefs and my rational framework reinforces for me that there is indeed something fundamentally valid in these venerable frameworks.

1 comment:

John Stoner said...

I'd say as far as you're concerned, the most direct answer to the question 'What is Ken Wilber selling?' is 'Spiritual practice.'

Take half an hour out of your day, every day for, say, six years. Read up on Zen practice, and try it out. Play along with Big Mind practice on a fairly regular basis. Bring as much skepticism as you can.

The heart of his rationalistic claim is not 'You can reconstruct this from a rationalistic viewpoint.' It's more like, 'Repeat this as an experiment and see what happens to your mind. You won't become irrational, but you will add some capacities that could be described as trans-rational.'

And judging whether that happens or not entails the use of these new capacities, which is sort of why it doesn't quite make sense till you engage. But you can judge the entire process that way: 'do this, learn this.' It's straightforward, from a narrow process perspective. It's just that what we're judging is the change in your broader personal perspective.

So there's an odd sort of leap he's asking of you. Try to sell rationalism to someone absorbed in a prerational value system, and they'll respond with something like, 'so if I learn to think like you, and apply empirical materialist rational thought, then... well, I'll lose my beliefs. I might go to hell.'

The analogous response from a rational perspective would be something like, 'If I do spiritual practice and learn to be like you, I'll lose my personal boundaries. I won't be 'me' anymore.' No, you won't. Now, from my perspective, that would be great. That's what we mean by 'trancending the ego.'

But it's not the best sales pitch. Most folks don't want to transcend their ego, even if they say they do. It sounds a little self-aggrandizing. 'I've transcended my ego! You can too!' It's a great way to feed the ego. That's what makes it tricky business. Otherwise everyone would do it.

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