First Impressions of “Sex, Ecology, Spirituality”

I’m about a third of the way of Ken Wilber’s Sex, Ecology, Spirituality, and I wanted to take some time to note my impressions before going further. It’s a remarkable book and he presents a remarkable view of the world: dizzying, exciting, ambitious, potentially nonsensical, but deeply stirring.

We often talk about writers who were “ahead of their time,” but we rarely consider what it must have been like to read someone like that–like Thoreau, for instance–before he was finally accepted. The excitement of exposure to new ideas, the thrill of being on the cutting edge, but running the risk that you’ll be influenced by thinking which will be revealed to be a sham… it’s an experience you don’t get from reading anything “assigned.” I don’t consider myself qualified to pass my own judgment on Wilber, and while I could put forward some rote “academic” critiques of his thinking and methods, I would consider that no more than a quasi-critique (and a soulless one), for reasons I’ll go into later.

First, here are some points of his thinking as I’ve grasped them so far.

One of Wilber’s main projects with this book seems to be to challenge the “anti-hierarchy” (post-modern post-structuralist) paradigm that has swept western intellectual life and academia over the last few decades. From the preface to the 2nd edition:

But this leaves pluralistic relativism in a difficult position. Having heroically developed beyond a rigid universal formalism, it became suspicious of any universals at all, and thus it tended to fight the emergence of universal integralism with the same ferocity that it deconstructed all previous systems. It turned its critical guns not just on pre-pluralistic stages (which was disastrous). Deconstructive postmodernism thus begin to actively fight any higher stages of growth, often turning academia into a charnel ground of deconstructive fury. Little new was created; past glories were simply torn down. Little novel was constructed; previous constructions were merely deconstructed. Few new buildings were erected; old ones were simply blown up. Postmodernism often degenerated into the nihilism and narcissism for which it is now so well known, and the vacant, haunted, hollow eyes of professional academia, peering through the smoking ruins, told the tale most sadly.

This paradigm, which he calls that of “universal pluralism,” maintains that all “hierarchies” and value systems are means by which one group maintains power and controls other groups. Essentially the outcome of the maturation of the intellectual movements of the second half of the 20th century, it pushes for an understanding of the world which holds all views, perspectives, and ways of understanding as inherently equal and refuses to consider any relative valuations, seeing these “relative valuations” as shallow covers for control and dominance by one group of another.

For me, and I assume for many of you, this “universal pluralism” was the view that drove university education. For me, “awakening” to this universal pluralism was in fact the fruit of my entire undergraduate education. I remember clearly several points in which I would leave a particularly compelling lecture and feel overwhelmed by this new understanding of the futility of hierarchy, of the harm caused by relative valuation, of the inherent beauty and equality of all ideas. It is exactly this dominant intellectual outlook that Wilber is trying to challenge.

You may see why his work has been met with mixed review, and why it would be so exciting to read through–these ideas are, to someone just leaving a university setting, not only new, but radical. I was alarmed and intrigued when I finally figured out what Wilber was trying to do. He had proposed to dismantle the very paradigm that I had come to internalize and hold dear, and I was intrigued to see how he would manage it.

He begins by making a fairly good point: that denial of hierarchy is a fantasy. To deny a hierarchy, he says, is itself to create a hierarchy–one where the view of “no hierarchy” is at the top, and any view that allows for hierarchy is beneath. So even to say that hierarchies are evil is to create a hierarchy. Rather than attempt to do away with all hierarchies (and therefore lock yourself in a fantasy world), Wilber suggests a re-conception of the nature of hierarchy, in order to discard the pathological and destructive aspects of past hierarchies (those related to gender, race, and so on), without pushing ourselves into what Wilber sees as a fantasyland of denial. It was a fair point, I realized. I kept reading.

Wilber went on to outline the core of his philosophy: an incredibly abstract new category of thing called a “holon.” To Wilber, the holon is most abstract category that exists, in that all things (all things) are holons. I am a holon. You are a holon. The United States is a holon, and so is the theory of Behaviorism. This sounds ludicrous until you realize that, like every category, the term “holon” isn’t meant to describe the entirety of the object (just like the category “Californian” isn’t meant to describe everything about me), but rather (like all categories) certain things that all holons have in common. Here, the term “holon” refers to a) the way that things come into being, and b) their relationship to other holons.

Regarding “coming into being,” Wilber sees all things as been the result of the evolution and integration of simpler things. A description he uses frequently: “the many become one and are increased by one.” For example, a cell is a holon in that it is the collection and organization of organelles, while at the same time being more than a collection and organization of organelles–it is a cell. (As an aside, those of you versed in the brain/mind/consciousness debate will see immediate applications of this idea). Wilber sees this process going all the way down to the subatomic level, and all the way up to the entire universe. When Wilber talks about hierarchies, this is what he is trying to describe.

Regarding “relationship to other holons,” explains how all the members of the same “level” are coordinated via their membership to the level above. Returning to the cell example, the activities of the organelles are coordinated through their membership of the cell. If you were to take all the same organelles and put them in a semi-permeable membrane but take away their coordination, you would cease to have a cell. Hence, the term “cell” refers to a thing, but also to a relationship among “lower” things. You could take this logic and apply it to cells/tissue, tissue/organs, organs/human, human/family, so on and so on. Wilber takes it and applies it to everything, from cognitive development to political institutions. It’s this sort of abstract reasoning that makes Wilber so interesting to read.

He is trying to articulate a theory of evolution that consists of the constant separation, development, and re-integration of holons into successively more complex and powerful entities. It’s an exhilarating argument to follow–I don’t think I would be casual with words if I were to call it an intellectual roller coaster.

Wilber is a bit of an iconoclast. Often in the book he’ll launch what at first blush might seem to be a damning critique of one or another progressive social movement–the feminist and ecological movements are regular targets. At first I was surprised that he would be so harsh of his fellow progressives, but reading more closely you realize that he isn’t being hostile–he is desperately trying to (as he sees it) rescue these movements from their own limited thinking.

For example, he critiques the feminists for their hostility towards men and patriarchy. Looking past the “he’s a man, what does he know” knee-jerk reactions, however, his argument goes something as follows:

Millennia of male-dominated society, from the earliest agriculture (but not, relevantly, horticulture) to the dawn of industry, was NOT due to male domination and feminine subjugation (as of often implied if not declared outright), but rather due to–here’s where things get precipitous–the biological and material demands placed upon the human race at the time. The mechanisms of food production and social reproduction at that point necessitated a division of roles between genders; these mechanisms would evolve but not fully dissolve until mechanization had advanced the point where sexual dimorphism was no longer relevant to society. It was at exactly at this point, Wilber points out, that we see the first expressions of feminism. The timing was not due to an abrupt and spontaneous “awakening” among females, but rather the emergence of the first available opening for female social equality.

While at first this argument might seem to be retracing the worst kinds of biological rationales for patriarchy, another reading would show that Wilber is in fact trying to free feminists from the struggle to explain and come to terms with the lack of feminism until relatively recently. It also frees feminists from the need to blame men for the imbalanced status quo, and makes it easier to extend a hand and invite them to the project of building more equal institutions.

Wilber also tosses some barbs at the ecological movements, but again it’s nothing but tough love. His critique of the ecological movements (specifically those that advocate for a sort of Gaia-centered, “flatland” holistic worldview, such as deep ecology) stems from their view that humans deserve no special status in the ecosystem, and that every node on the web of life is of perfectly equal value. Advocating for this sort of worldview, Wilber argues, would be a regression, not a progression, because it “lops off” the more evolved levels of the holonic tree, in particular human civilization and culture. In Wilber’s view, the “physiosphere” (the material world) is the foundation of the “biosphere” (the biological world), which itself is the foundation for the “noosphere” (a somewhat silly word for the social world). To Wilber, our current level of consciousness (generally self-centered, materialistic, anthropocentric, rational) needs to be progressed PAST into a new global awareness, but one which preserves and integrates the rationality and understanding that has come from the current era. The alternative but forward by the ecological movements, to Wilber’s mind, is a regression into an idealized past and ignores the reality of human social and cultural inertia.

I found this argument strange at first, but he makes a clever argument that I found convincing. It goes as follows:

When trying to determine whether one holon is “higher” or “lower” than another, subject it to a simple test: if one were to be destroyed, would the other be as well? Given the case of molecules and cells, the answer is clear: were atoms to be destroyed, cells would also cease to be. But if cells ceased to exist, atoms would continue to exist just fine. Therefore, cells are a higher holon than atoms, atoms are contained within cells. But what of humanity and the biosphere? Wilber argues that humanity exists as a “higher” holon than the biosphere, and therefore “contains” the biosphere within it. So we ask: what happens if humanity were to be destroyed? Would the biosphere cease to function? It is immediately obvious that it would not. Yet if the biosphere were destroyed, everying that depends on it–all “higher” holons–would also go. The biosphere goes, humanity goes, ergo humanity exists “higher” on the hierarchy the biosphere. So the argument goes, anyway. You are free and encouraged to disagree.

Wilber is quick to point out that this does NOT, of course, mean that humans can do whatever they like to the biosphere. Wilber has much sympathy for the ecological movements and agrees that humanity needs to get itself under control, and quickly, or the biosphere will be seriously damaged. Wilber’s point is that humanity is not part of the biosphere, but vice versa, and any real solution will require not the dissolution of humanity into the ecosystem, but evolution into a new understanding of the relationship.

Wilber is not without his critics. In fact, he has many. Criticisms of his work follow a number of themes, with the most concise critique I’ve come across labeling his work as nothing but “undergraduate generalizations,” which is apt. Wilber makes big claims–I doubt there are many bigger–and he tackles big themes. He provides evidence, and cites heavily from other thinkers (Habermas, Piaget, and Gebser seem to be some of his favorites), but it’s not really enough. He takes a few data points and constructs enormous, sweeping models. Ultimately, reading Wilber becomes a bit like reading a religious or spiritual text: if you’re already predisposed to his way of thinking (as I clearly am), you’ll find yourself nodding along, but if you’re prejudiced against what he’s trying to say, you’ll reject it quickly. It is not a book for converting skeptics, and the scale and frequency of his generalizations from his evidence is the biggest reason.

That said, Wilber anticipates and responds to this in the first pages of the book. He described the work as consisting of “orienting generalizations,” meant to sketch the big picture and fill in the details later. He also points out that this is not his first or only work, and that in the interests of brevity he has given quick treatment to topics he has covered in previous books, assuming his readers would be familiar with his past writing. The downside is that a first-time reader might find themselves turned off the “overconfidence” in his writing and feel that he doesn’t make his argument rigorously enough. Having not read his other books, I can’t comment on this personally.

There’s another potential response to the criticism which I want to make, cautiously. It is very possible that Wilber is simply ahead of his time, and further that he is ahead of the current scientific paradigm. It’s a weak claim, but I contend it’s valid. Within our current scientific paradigm and understanding of reality (and corresponding methods of gathering and organizing information), it might simply be impossible to gather the evidence necessary to support Wilber’s argument. He refers to his work as “Integral” philosophy, in the sense that he is attempting to integrate the material and objective with the experienced and the subjective to create a new and “higher” worldview. It makes sense (and, appropriately, supports his own thesis) that such a project would be met with skepticism from the current scientific paradigm, which limits itself to the material, external and objective. He talks extensively about “trans-rational worldviews” and the like, and it makes sense that mainstream scientists and scholars, operating within a “rational” worldview, just couldn’t bring themselves to accept his ideas. That said, it’s possible that there is a scientific revolution on the horizon, and a new understanding of reality, and that this paradigm shift will bring new methods and new methods of knowing, and Wilber’s theories will find justification. Perhaps.

There is still much farther in the book to go, and I’ve no idea where it will lead. This is one of the few books I’ve read where I feel as I’m dealing with something new. Most things I read are rehashings of things I’ve already read, or someone trying to make their name by treading safe ground–foot soldiers in the intellectual army. Wilber is saying things I’ve never heard before, and they’re powerful. He’s tremendously intelligent and his writing is sophisticated. He tends to use a lot of strange compound words to describe strange terms (examples like “mythic-membership” and “ratio-mathematical”) come to mind, but you eventually catch on to what he’s talking about. Whether he’s right about everything, completely nuts, or somewhere in between, is to be determined.

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2 responses to “First Impressions of “Sex, Ecology, Spirituality”

  1. Pingback: Unlocking the Magic of Studio Ghibli | kronosapiens·

  2. Pingback: The Year Abroad Book Review | kronosapiens·

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