"Wilber manages to create a sweeping system for
everything in life. He describes our spiritual evolution, and our dominant
conceptual concerns: East and West, ancient and modern, individual and
collective, physical and metaphysical. Wilber writes in an accessible
common-sense style. He deliberately avoids a typical scholarly tone. While not
free of some pretense at a monolithic voice, his work promotes rich
conceptions of self-reflexiveness, interconnection, spirituality and empathy.
Wilber shows how the major theories of biological,
psychological, cognitive and spiritual development describe different versions
of how to find "the truth." At the outset, Wilber refers to Douglas
Adams's best-selling cult novel Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy. We desire
final conclusions, just as Adams facetiously proposed the "answer that
would completely explain 'God, life, the universe, and everything'" (p.
xv). In the novel, that answer was "42,"
the absurdity of seeking such a final answer.
Wilber's "answer," instead, is a framework for
connecting evolutionary currents.
At first, he uses a Socratic dialogue, beginning with "KW" for
Wilber and "Q" for the questioner, be s/he reader, fan, or friend.
Initially, this appears somewhat contrived. The text pretends to be an
interview, when it is clearly the author's own highly controlled construction.
Upon further reading, however, the stylistic device helps Wilber engage the
reader in a dialogue.
To Wilber, traditions of thought have usually been either
"ascending" toward transcendental spirituality, or
"descending" to the body, the senses, and sexuality (p. 11). The
author suggests that humans must integrate dualities to survive as a species.
In fact, we must not merely synthesize but accept the "nonduality"
of ascending and descending, mind and body (p. 12).
Wilber's first chapter presents a brief summary of the
entire book in the voice of the questioner:
Q: So we'll start with the story of the Big Bang itself, and
then trace out the course of evolution from matter to life to mind. And then,
with the emergence of mind, or human consciousness, we'll look at the five or
six major epochs of human evolution itself. And all of this is set in the
context of spirituality-of what spirituality means, of the various forms that
it has historically taken, and the forms that it might take tomorrow. Sound
KW: Yes, it's sort of a brief history of everything...based
on what I call 'orienting generalizations' (p. 17)
"Q" is obviously more highly informed than a
first-time reader. Wilber uses Q less to ask questions than to help simplify
points [the book summarizes the more complex content of Wilber's massive Sex,
Ecology, Spirituality (1995)]. The "generalizations" he notes are
Kohlberg's and Gilligan's moral stages. "Human moral development goes
through at least three broad stages" (p. 17). In brief: before the child
is socialized, it is "preconventional," as it learns the values of
society it becomes "conventional," and eventually it may reflect on
its own values critically, becoming increasingly "postconventional."
Wilber goes on to show a number of "tenets" or
"patterns that connect." The first of these is that "reality is
composed of whole/parts, or 'holons'" (p. 20). A holon is something that
is itself "a whole and simultaneously a part of some other whole"
(ibid.). Borrowing from Arthur Koestler, Wilber argues that the world is full
of "holarchies," as opposed to hierarchies. Where a hierarchy
typically separates distinct parts, a holarchy consists of both wholes that
are parts, and parts that are wholes. For example, an atom is a whole of its
own, but also a part of a whole molecule. A whole molecule is a part of a
whole cell, and a whole cell is part of a whole organism. As Wilber says,
"Time goes on, and today's wholes are tomorrow's parts" (ibid.).
Wilber uses the ideas of "depth" and
"span" to say that whenever we map a territory, something always
gets left out. For instance, as we narrow focus with a microscope, "There
are fewer organisms than cells; there are fewer cells than molecules; there
are fewer molecules than atoms; there are fewer atoms than quarks. Each has a
greater depth, but less span" (p. 34). Similarly, if we move from
mysticism and psychology, into biology and physics, the progression gives
greater depth of specific detail but less span, embrace, or inclusion of
levels of reality (pp. 36-38). These dimensions are neither dependent nor
independent, but interdependent.
Great shifts in "reality" paradigms were brought
by what Wilber calls "the watershed separating the modern and postmodern
approaches to knowledge" (p. 58). Postmodernists criticize old
paradigms such as "the Enlightenment,... the Newtonian, the Cartesian,
the mechanistic, the mirror of nature, the reflection paradigm" (ibid.).
In opposition, many postmodernists propose that "all truth is relative
and merely culture-bound, there are no universal truths" (pp. 62-63). But
as Wilber notes, even Derrida now concedes the elemental point that worldviews
are not "'merely constructed' in the sense of totally relative and
arbitrary" (p. 62). In Wilber's diagnosis, assertions that "there is
no truth in the Kosmos, only those notions that men force on others," are
nihilistic, replacing truth with "the ego of the theorist" (p. 63).
As a tool to place different worldviews, Wilber uses
"four quadrants of development" (pp. 71-75). The exterior form of
development is measured objectively and empirically. The interior dimension is
subjective and interpretive, and hence depends on consciousness and
introspection. And both interior and exterior occur not just separately but in
social or cultural context.
Wilber describes how
Foucault summarized the "monological
madness" that dominated the eighteenth century and Enlightenment notions
of the subject:
"the subjective and intersubjective domains were thus
reduced to empirical studies - I and we were reduced to its - and thus humans
became 'objects of information, never subjects in communication'" (p.
Treated as objects, people were expected to meet norms of mental health,
for instance, while their subjective position in the world was ignored.
Wilber says the whole of his morality aims to "protect
and promote the greatest depth for the greatest span" (p. 335). He argues
we must use these criteria when we make judgments. Although the spirituality
risks opacity, the overall effort suggests deeply researched and grounded ways
to structure reality. If we as a society need human empathy for multiple
perspectives, then the patterns of thought laid out by Wilber provide a system
for integrating such perspectives. Distilling messages of vast ranges of
thought, Wilber presents highly differentiated worldviews and multiple points
of intervention through which we can, if contingently, take action.