"Wilber manages to create a sweeping system for everything in life. He
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
highlighting 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.
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.
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
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
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. 269).
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.