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Spiritual Inquiry: A Critique of Wilber

John Heron

Inquiry and the spiritual path

Is there any kind of science of things spiritual, including things psychic or subtle? Rudolf Steiner, the founder of Anthroposophy, thought there was. He wrote a lot about spiritual science as personal knowledge of 'higher worlds', to be acquired by patiently cultivating a series of exercises which he laid out (Steiner, 1923). But he never defined any kind of social, interactive method whereby such personal experiences could be wrought into the tested fabric of an intersubjective, consensual reality. As a result, the Anthroposophical worldview is still today defined by an exclusive appeal to the authority of Steiner himself.

Peter Reason makes an eloquent appeal for a science that is sacred. This is a form of inquiry which includes participative experience of our world as sacred space, 'representation of that experience in ways that bring beauty, understanding and framing of that experience in ways that are not alienated, and action and engagement to heal ourselves and our planet'. He suggests we need to attend to all these four aspects of human knowing and integrate them in cycles of co-operative inquiry, in which everyone involved combines critical consciousness with a deep experience of the sacred (Reason, 1993).

What is valuable and powerful about this appeal is that it allows for the emergence of a sacred consensual reality from the critical sharing of personal experience. Ultimate sacred authority resides in authentic collaboration among autonomous persons, and is relative to those persons. The appeal also closes the gap between spiritual science and the spiritual path. Sacred science it is not a science about some version of the path, seeking to justify that path. Sacred science is itself a path. A sacred way is a way that includes a fundamental component of inquiry about itself. It seems to me to follow that we cannot know whither this way will lead, how it will unfold, until we are on it.

By contrast, Ken Wilber is a writer who sees the spiritual path as taking a preordained route, which he then needs to validate by certain warrants. He has three such warrants: an appeal to the evidence of spiritual science, or transcendental inquiry as he calls it; an appeal to cross-cultural consensus; and an appeal to evolutionary anticipation. The purpose of this paper is to show that none of these warrants work, that Wilber has presented no adequate validation for his account of the spiritual path, that he is putting a rational gloss on a hidden appeal to traditional authority, and that what is needed is an honest account of personal spiritual experience in a true community of peers.

Wilber's account of the preordained path

Wilber thinks that spiritual development for everyone now and in the future will follow a predetermined path so far as it basic structures are concerned (Wilber 1983, 1990, 1995). While the surface details may vary from culture to culture and each individual may follow his or her route, with a degree of toing and froing, the underlying progression is and will be the same: from the psychic to the subtle, to the causal, to the nondual. The psychic is to do with lower psychic capacities (1983, 1990) and a mysticism that participates in all nature and human culture (1995). The subtle relates to the archetypes of divine manifestation (1990) and to the union of the soul and god (1995) (this union is put in the low causal in 1990). The causal is boundless, formless, unmanifest consciousness (1983, 1990, 1995). Nonduality refers to a state in which ultimate formlessness, emptiness, the void is not other than all the worlds of form, so that natural and supernatural are one and the same (1983, 1990, 1995). Each of these stages 'represents a form of tomorrow, a shape of our destiny yet to come' (1995: 278).

Wilber says that his account of these stages is 'based largely on Hindu and Buddhist psychological systems and especially their modern interpreters, for example, Aurobindo, Guenon, Smith, Free John' (1990: 284). With this admission we may start to be a little wary.

The first warrant

Wilber, as I have said, has three warrants for his insistence that this is the predetermined structure of the spiritual path. The first is provided by what he calls transcendental inquiry which, he says, offers a verification procedure for spiritual experiences. He explores this view most fully in Eye to Eye (1990: 39-81) and echoes it strongly in Sex, Ecology, Spirituality (1995: 265, 273-76). He says that transcendental inquiry, like ordinary scientific inquiry, has three simple steps: a practical instruction of the form 'To know this, do this'; immediate experience which follows from acting on the instruction; consensual validation by checking, with others who have also gone through the first two steps, to see whether you have indeed had the right experience. This last he calls communal confirmation or refutation in a community of peers (1995: 274), in which 'bad data are rebuffed' (1995: 276). Wilber illustrates this procedure in terms of Zen training. He thinks that Zen and similar spiritual traditions are sound and valid forms of transcendental inquiry (1990: 59-61).

The failure of the first warrant

(1) The first warrant confuses inquiry with training. All the examples Wilber gives of his three inquiry steps presuppose that established knowledge is already built in to the practical instruction of step one. So in ordinary science, he says, if you want to know that a cell has a nucleus, take sections, stain the cell and look at it under a microscope (1995: 273). Similarly, in transcendental inquiry, if you want to know that there is a Buddha Nature, take up the practice of zazen (1990: 60). What this means is that the checking of step three is to make sure that you have followed the instruction properly and have had the experience that pre-existent knowledge says you are supposed to have had. This kind of checking is no more than the assessment of experiential training within an established field of practice and discourse.

The whole procedure only becomes inquiry when presuppositions built into the instructions for step one are questioned. That is, when you ask whether the nucleus of a cell does in fact have this or that function ascribed to it; or whether the Buddha Nature is what tradition holds it to be. And this, as we shall see, is precisely what many traditional spiritual schools don't like and can't handle. They will often dismiss it as egoic resistance.

Wilber's first warrant for his four stages of the spiritual path tries to disguise training in a hierarchical spiritual school as peer spiritual inquiry. It presents what is in fact teacher-run experiential training as if it were peer group experiential inquiry, and teacher assessment of skills as peer validation of data. The teacher in experiential training tells you what experiences you are able to have, tells you how to have them and checks whether you have had them. The peers in an experiential inquiry ask whether a defined experience is what it claims to be, enter the experience in ways that are open to falsifying the definition, then check with each other to see whether their experiential data does or does not support the definition.

What Wilber calls consensual validation by checking with others is really teacher-dominated assessment of training outcomes. And this is not at all the same as confirmation or refutation in a peer community of inquiry. It is important to note that the peers, in such an inquiry, do not validate experiential data. That is, they do not confirm or refute their experiences in the light of the original idea - that is peer assessment of learning. They do the opposite: they confirm or refute the original idea in the light of their experiences - and that is peer inquiry.

Wilber refers to Zen as an example of trascendental inquiry. Zen, however, is a training run by a Zen teacher who has himself had ten to twenty years of training within a very strong, long-standing and traditional lineage. This powerful tradition has both cognitive and technical authority: it defines both what experiences mean and how to have them. Zen is training people to grasp the notion of satori, then ungrasp it and have the experience of satori, and is then assessing whether they have had the experience - an assessment dominated by the Zen master. The only 'bad data' that are rebuffed are experiences that are not in line with traditional experiential claims. Zen training, in its traditional oriental form, is not a collaborative inquiry as to whether satori is indeed what it claims to be. It is an hierarchical not a peer process. It is not practising openness to experiential data that could falsify or modify or lead to a reconceptualization of the satori claim.

(2) I take the view that experiential training and experiential inquiry are always to some degree involved in each other. They range along a spectrum between theoretical extremes of all training at one end and all inquiry at the other. In experiential training, the training component is greater than the inquiry component, and this occurs when the trainer gives more technical (how to do it) and conceptual (what it means) shape to the trainees' experiences than the trainees do individually and co-operatively.

When the degree of the trainer's combined technical and cognitive authority is very high, and that of the trainees' very low, then, in the spiritual field, the training is equivalent to experiential indoctrination. Trainees have been indoctrinated when what they do and what it means to them are entirely derived from, and justified exclusively by appeal to, the external authority of the trainer and his or her tradition. When, however, the trainer's combined technical and cognitive authority only carries a little more weight than that of the trainees, then spiritual training is close to, but not yet, a spiritual inquiry. In such a training, the trainees will justify what they do and what it means to them by an appeal to their own technical and cognitive internal authority in close second place to the external authority of their trainer and her or his tradition.Where the trainees note a disparity between inner and outer authority, they will tend to defer to the latter, although there always seem to be some trainees who quietly give more credence to the inner voice than to the outer.

In experiential inquiry, the inquiry component is greater than the training component, and this is the case when the 'trainees', now co-inquirers, individually and co-operatively, give more technical and conceptual shape to their own experiences than the 'trainer', now the initiating inquirer, does. Authority lies within them, as individuals and as a critical collective. The element of training in such a co-operative inquiry is provided by the initiating inquirer who introduces the co-inquirers to a co-operative method of research. Her or his authority is methodological and short-lived: it seeks to empower the co-inquirers to give technical and conceptual shape to their own experiences for the purposes of inquiring into them. Once the co-inquirers have internalized the method, modified it and made it their own, the originating authority of the initiating researcher becomes very secondary to his or her ongoing parity.

A spiritual training, then, within any given school, has a strong propensity for indoctrination, if it has a weak subordinate dimension of self and peer inquiry and gives little scope for the technical and cognitive internal authority of its trainees. I have little doubt that the training within many an ancient oriental spiritual lineage is still today closer to experiential indoctrination than it is to experiential inquiry. The spirit of the teacher's authority pervades such a lineage, not the spirit of inquiry. It is an established experiential tradition, based on a strong appeal to external authority, precisely because it doesn't have a methodology of experiential inquiry and will invariably resist such inquiry.

This is well brought out by the account Franklin Jones gives of trying, respectfully and on the basis of his own experience, to question the assumptions made by Swami Muktananda about the goal of meditation in the Siddha Yoga tradition of which Muktananda was a master. Muktananda systematically evades and ignores the challenge of the inquiry and just reiterates the experiential claims of his tradition. Jones realizes that Muktananda is at a dead end and pulls out of Siddha Yoga (Da Avabhasa, 1992: 494-97).

The authoritarian tradition of spiritual training, still prevalent in eastern lineages, is problematic for their enlightened western followers who have a strong and healthy instinct for authentic inquiry. It is interesting to see this tension at work in an article by John Crook on 'Authenticity and the practice of Zen' in New Ch'an Forum (Crook, 1996).

Wilber, too, has this instinct for authentic inquiry. So he evokes the idea of experiential inquiry within a 'community of peers'. But he then immediately confuses it, presumably because of unstated allegiances of his own, with a covert appeal to the traditional authority of spiritual training, which is at the opposite end of the spectrum to a genuine science involving co-operative parity.

(3) Revealingly, he comes right out into the open about this veiled appeal, and drops the cover of collaborative science, when in a later chapter in Eye to Eye he identifies three primary criteria for a valid religious movement (1990: 277-80). He says it should move beyond the rational into higher disciplines, and not sink into irrational impulse; it should anchor its legitimacy in a traditional lineage, like Christianity, Sufism or Buddhism; and it should provide, for a period, but not permanently, the authority of a guru, as long as he is not regarded as perfect. No mention anywhere here of the notion of inquiry in a community of peers, and this is altogether more honest.

(4) Suppose there were a genuine peer inquiry (of which Wilber appears to know nothing) about the spiritual path, and suppose it did come up, after appropriate falsification challenges, with something like Wilber's four spiritual stages. The validity of these findings would be context specific. They could not and should not be used for wholesale generalization and prescription. They may interest and illuminate people, and motivate others to conduct their own researches, but they would not be a developmental formula for others. And they would entail nothing whatsoever about the future spiritual evolution of mankind. Wilber, as we shall see, believes in undetermined, innovative, emergent evolution on every level. So how can the inquiry findings of yesterday or today provide any account of the final form of tomorrow?

(5) If the structure of the spiritual path were really based on transcendental inquiry involving consensual validation in a community of peers, then we should expect to see this at work among those who claim to be spiritually accomplished, the so-called spiritual masters. Current masters of the same and different schools would meet regularly and engage in ecumenical dialogue and experiential inquiry. This would parallel what goes on in ordinary science, where leaders in any field are in regular peer exchange to review the validity of each other's work and try it out experimentally. But of course spiritual masters are notorious for each becoming a law unto himself. They sedulously avoid acknowledging the existence of other masters. The authority each master claims for himself precludes any kind of peer relationship with any other.

Franklin Jones, as we have seen, was a genuine spiritual inquirer in his youth, going around comparing and contrasting his own experience with that of other spiritually accomplished people. Once he became Da Avabhasa, a self-appointed Divine World-Teacher, his continuing experiential inquiry was inflated to divine proportions, being converted into a series of exclusive revelations for the salvation of his devotees, who are encouraged to believe that these revelations outshine those of all other teachers of any time or place (Da Avabhasa, 1992). Not only has Franklin Jones become incapable of peer inquiry, he has indoctrinated his devotees to the point at which they are quite incapable of it too. His spiritual authority is supreme. And this is someone whom Wilber himself has endorsed as 'a religious genius of the ultimate degree' whose teaching is 'unsurpassed by that of any other spiritual Hero' (Da Avabhasa, 1992: back cover). Such an endorsement is entirely at odds with Wilber's claim that the validity of mysticism is based upon transcendental inquiry within a community of peers.

(6) This stills leaves us with a question. What is the status of the experiential claims of an oriental spiritual school such as Zen or Siddha Yoga or any other? If these claims are not warranted by a full process of inquiry, on what, if anything, are they based? The answer, we have seen, is that they are based on established spiritual tradition, a lineage of trainers, whose technical and cognitive authority always has more weight, to a greater or lesser degree, than that of the trainees. Such a spiritual tradition is a set of experiential claims waiting for an inquiry-based validity warrant. In other words, these claims become warranted, or otherwise, when their tradition-and-guru-based experiential training is transformed into peer experiential inquiry, more widely called collaborative or co-operative inquiry (Heron, 1996). In such an inquiry, the technical and cognitive authority of the co-inquirers is internal and primary. And for such an inquiry, the technical and cognitive authority of any spiritual lineage is a contributory external and secondary resource. This is a challenge for the future. At present, co-operative inquiry is not widely known, and is threatening to the authoritarianism that is part and parcel of a strong spiritual tradition.

The second warrant

Wilber makes much of another warrant to legitimate his version of the preordained spiritual path. This is the argument from the perennial philosophy, which claims there is a consensus among mystics of diverse cultures and different eras. Whatever the surface differences, Wilber insists, the deep structures of the stages of the spiritual path are the same, as this path is described in the literature of several different religious and mystical traditions (Wilber, Engler and Brown, 1986; Wilber, 1995).

Wilber could have argued that this second warrant is an extension of the first, that since all the different mystical traditions are valid transcendental inquiries, therefore they all tend to come up with the same basic findings. However, he doesn't explicitly make this point, but it is presumably implicit. Anyway, since the inquiry idea doesn't hold water, we can treat the mystical consensus theory as quite separate.

The failure of the second warrant

This warrant is doomed. Firstly, if there is a mystical consensus, it can't be used as a valid warrant. I give four reasons for this, the third being the most problematic for Wilber. Secondly, the concept of a mystical consensus is itself highly contentious, if not specious, and I give two reasons why this is so. Let us start by supposing there is a consensus.

(1) It depends entirely on the written word. The earliest relevant religious texts that are used for this warrant are dated as originating after 1000 BC (Camphausen, 1992). So we are talking here of an absolute maximum of 3000 years of the recorded religious experience of a very minute percentage of the human race. We do not know how many literate civilizations have risen and fallen over the last 50,000 years, since our current findings only go back to Sumer, about 5000 BC. The sample of human experience invoked by this warrant may thus be perilously small for the monolithic claim it is used to justify.

(2) A textual consensus among mystics, per se, confers no validity on its content. It could mean that all those concerned are in deluded morphic resonance, to use Sheldrake's theory (Sheldrake, 1981). It could mean they are bound within some constraints that affect the whole human race for a 3000 year period, and don't apply in the future. Thus the dynamics of repression is a very recent discovery, a discovery which makes possible full body-mind integration. There is no evidence that mystics of the last 3000 years ever got to grips with it (I develop this point later on). Hence their supposed consensus could be evidence of their shared pathology.

(3) Wilber believes that humans (and all other 'holons' in his evolutionary theory) are self-transcending. Self-transcendence he defines as 'a transformation that results in something novel and emergent' (1995: 42). He goes on to make it clear that 'unprecedented emergence means undetermined by the past' (1995: 47). But if you believe in the innovative, unprecedented, undetermined, emergent evolution of the human spirit, then past experiential consensus has no predictive or prescriptive relevance for the present or the future. Within this belief system, past agreement about any kind of human experience, especially the mystical kind, cannot and should not either provide a standard for judging its present occurrence, or provide a formula for its future development. The higher the evolutionary level, the greater the innovation and novelty (1995: 68). So the spiritual stages, being the highest levels, will show the greatest novelty and will be the least predictable.

Wilber tries to argue that past mystics have anticipated the future evolution of mankind, that they have already evolved through the four stages of spiritual transformation that lie ahead for the rest of us (1995: 253, 314-15). For a theorist of emergent evolution this is a bizarre idea. It is as if an evolutionary biologist were to argue that every once in a while in the very early history of primates, there appeared one or two fully formed human beings, who anticipated the eventual emergence of the human race from its primate origins. I shall return to this anticipatory theory below and discuss its failure as a third warrant.

(4) The past is a platform for launching the future, not a ceiling to be put on it. This is especially so where religious experience is concerned. To argue that past mystical consensus prescribes future mystical experience is yet another form of controlling priestcraft, based on an appeal to the eternal validity of the authority of tradition. The priest says: 'There is a long established, universal mystical tradition, valid for all time. I know what it is, I will tell you what it is and I will show you how to keep within it'. Wilber, it appears, is a deep conservative in deceptive innovative dress.

All these arguments presuppose that some sort of real consensus can be derived by an analysis of past texts from diverse traditions. This can seriously be called in question.

(1) The analysis is based on a selection of religious texts. Thus there are criteria for deciding which texts are to be included for the analysis, and which excluded. These criteria determine the selection, and so what will be read into the chosen texts. And these criteria are necessarily prior to and independent of the texts. Alduous Huxley, who started off the whole perennial philosophy business in 1945, was already sold, on independent grounds, on (his modernised version of) the nondualistic vedanta of Shankara, and this determined who he included in his compilation and how he construed what they had written. He excluded a lot of theistic mysticism because he thought it was about an anthropomorphic god, which he didn't believe in.

Wilber, from the evidence of his books, reads as though he is already sold, on grounds independent of textual consensus, on some form of Buddhism, perhaps (his modernised version of) the views of Nagarjuna, the founder of Madhyamika Buddhism, and his Buddhism similarly influences his account of the perennial philosophy. His 1983 version of the four spiritual stages is shrouded in arcane Buddhist terminology - the Nirmanakaya, the Sambhogakaya, the Dharmakaya and the Svabhavikakaya (1983: 253).

These independent grounds are presumably some mixture of personal experience, theological reflection, the encounter with certain living teachers. It is these grounds - which underlie the criteria of selection, particularly the criteria of exclusion - which we should be hearing about. For they are what the claimed consensus is really all about. If there are one hundred witnesses who say they have seen god, and you only call twenty of them, it is more relevant for the jury to know on what grounds you have excluded the other eighty, than it is to hear what the selected twenty have to say. Textual consensus per se is a veiled form of special pleading.

(2) The interpretation of ancient texts is notoriously problematic. Ancient writings are embedded in and emerge from ancient cultural and linguistic contexts. Each such context is a set of mutually shared values and meanings, some of them explicit and some implicit. The meaning of an ancient text is inseparable from this ancient intersubjective set of meanings, at both its explicit and its implicit levels. Translating this meaning into a modern language whose usage is embedded in its own intersubjective context of cultural values and meanings, is a precarious matter. Even Christians have questioned the very possibility, in some cases, of finding modern equivalents for biblical meanings (Mudge, 1983).

Wilber himself acknowledges - well away from his discussion of mystical consensus - that the intersubjective meaning within a culture is not easily accessible. 'I cannot simple see meaning...Rather, to the extent that I can, I must resonate with the interior depth of the inhabitants.' This, he says, requires mutual understanding, 'a type of interior harmonic resonance of depth'. And he goes on to talk about participant observation in Hopi culture (1995: 128). But he seems to forget all this 150 pages later when talking about reconstructing the mystical path from old texts, as if the meaning of a text can be reliably grasped today in complete dissociation from the context of intersubjective meaning within its culture. This dissociation is unavoidable because, of course, 'interior harmonic resonance of depth' between the modern student and the inhabitants of an ancient culture is impossible.

This doesn't mean we can't get anything valuable and meaningful from translations of ancient texts. It just means they cannot be responsibly used to validate modern views of the spiritual path, without begging a big question: we can never know that we are not reading into our translations of an ancient text the intersubjective values and meanings of our own cultural context. Once this point is grasped, it can be used as a prophylactic against wasting a lot of time giving authoritative status to past accounts of the religious life.

The third warrant

Wilber has another very shaky warrant for his belief in the predetermined nature of the spiritual path. I have already alluded to it as back-up for the mystical consensus warrant. It is the mystics' anticipation theory, which I come to in the fourth sentence ahead. But first, we note again that he is committed to a doctrine of evolution and its directionality for matter, life, mind, and beyond into the spiritual. He has various criteria for this directionality: increasing novelty and diversity, increasing integration, increasing relative autonomy, and increasing teology (1995: 67-78). Following Comte, Gebser and others, he thinks the historical evidence is pretty clear for the evolution of the human mind, through magic and mythic stages, to the current rational stage, which in its advanced form means the integration of the ego-mind with all lower levels. But he also thinks, and this is his third warrant, that ancient sages have already, in their own lived experience of the spiritual path, anticipated the four main spiritual stages - psychic, subtle, causal and nondual - which still lie in the future for the rest of mankind. He introduced and championed this view most strongly in Up From Eden (1983), and he reiterates it his recent work (1995: 253, 314-15).

The failure of the third warrant

Wilber stumbles here into deep trouble with the tenets of his own = evolutionary theory.

(1) He says that, in the evolutionary hierarchy, a higher level emerges from a lower level, which sets the possibilities for the higher (1995: 46-56); the lower is the necessary foundation for the higher (1995: 489). And we can't properly go on to the next higher level, and be 'responsibly engaged' with it, until we are stabilized in, and have done justice to, the current level (1995: 748). So this means, we may infer, that the ancient sages, who between them, Wilber asserts, got into all the higher levels, can only have done so if they were properly grounded in the rational stages, in particular the higher rational, vision-logic or body-mind integration stage which immediately precedes, and is the foundation for the emergence of, the four spiritual stages.

But the ancient Hindu and Buddhist mystics, on whose testimony (via modern interpretations) Wilber, as he says, largely builds his spectrum, clearly had not done full justice to the rational stages. This is by virtue of the limits of the age in which they lived. They had no developed notions of science, art, ethics and politics each as relatively independent domains of inquiry and practice. Above all, from the point of view of what is necessary for the body-mind integration of the centaur or higher rational stage, they had no understanding of psychological repression. This very reduced relation of the ancient oriental mystics to the phenomenal world outside, both natural and social, and to psychodynamic processes within, powerfully calls in question the validity of the higher stages they built on these shaky foundations.

About 'the process of dynamic repression', Wilber makes three essential points: it is a modern Western discovery; it 'is only vaguely understood in the East'; and it needs to be dealt with as an essential part of body-mind integration (1990: 90-91). Dealing with it means the full bodily discharge of pent-up emotion (1977: 252-54). Add to all this Wilber's view that the body-mind stage precedes the four higher spiritual stages (1995: 258-264), that the lower is the necessary foundation of the higher (1995: 489), and that stable adaptation at the lower stage is a prerequisite for ascent into higher stages (1995: 748), then within the terms of his own theory, there is no way the ancient mystics, lacking body-mind integration, can have been 'responsibly engaged' with the higher stages. And thus we are entitled to call in question whether they were 'higher' at all.

Wilber describes the centaur or body-mind integration stage, which immediately precedes his spiritual stages, as 'the level of humanistic-existential psychology/therapy'. It was first reached, he thinks, by some people in the 1600s in Europe, but is only peaking today (1983: 319-20). So we are all in the middle of it now. Some of the leading modern practitioners of this stage, such as Reich and Perls, have strongly asserted how heavily armoured and defended their mystic/meditating clients have been, so much so they both wanted to throw out the mystical baby with its turgid and disturbed bath water. What body-mind practitioner has not met the young male Buddhist convert, whose spiritual practices reinforce his deep resistance to the integration of denied and repressed material?

To say that the sensitive souls who became ancient Hindu and Buddhist sages had no repressed material, never as children got into wounding, splitting and denial, is an unlikely story. If they did have repressed material, they couldn't deal with it directly at the body-mind level, because, as Wilber has said, they only 'vaguely understood' the dynamics of repression, a modern Western discovery. If Wilber wants to say that they dealt with, and fully resolved, their repression entirely from the spiritual stages through contemplative practice, then he is flatly contradicting his own evolutionary tenets. For according to these tenets, as we have seen, body-mind integration means resolving repression directly at the body-mind level, and this is a necessary foundation for entering any spiritual stage in a responsible manner, is, indeed, a precondition of valid, stable spiritual emergence and growth.

The more likely story is that the ancient oriental mystics bypassed the body-mind integration stage, lifted themselves up above repressed material without dealing with it directly, only managed to resolve some of it by the incidental transmutative effects of contemplative practice, and what was left simply skewed their whole approach to the spiritual path. Hence the world denial that runs as a chronic pathology through Hindu and Buddhist mysticism alike. Compare, also, the god-crazy inflation of some modern gurus who have clearly bypassed body-mind integration.

(2) There is something distinctly odd about Wilber, himself living at a time when the body-mind integration stage is 'peaking', already knowing, from the accounts of ancient mystics who never went through it, where it is all going to go spiritually in the future. This looks to me like a defence against really entering deeply into current possibilities for body-mind integration, into uncharted territory to see where it will lead, and thus perhaps becoming open to potentials for spiritual unfoldment that have never been identified before.

This takes me on to elaborate the third point, made earlier, on the problems of the second warrant. To write a book about Spirit as unfolding evolution, involving the increasing emergence of novelty (1995: 42, 68), and to say now, on the basis of evidence from the past, that you already know the basic stages that the indwelling Spirit, the Deus implicitus, is going to prompt you and everyone else to get up to in the future, is not only a contradiction in terms, it is a deep discourtesy to the indwelling Spirit. It is at least to charge it with lack of imagination and of the ability to surpise you with unpredictable novelty. Above all, it is a way of not attending fully to its evolutionary prompt today. It is also a very male endeavour, a flight from pregnancy and the gestation of the unknown.

(3) Wilber defines each of his four spiritual stages, and their previous stages (magic, mythic, rational, centauric), as worldspaces (1995: 276, 314). They are all in the interior-social quadrant in his four quadrant system (1995: 121-26). As such, they are about the experiential interior of social systems, the common worldviews of a culture, intersubjective realities. They are about the deeply shared values and interior meanings that resonate within a whole society of people (1995: 123-25).

How, then, can any ancient sage, sitting in solitary meditation in the midst of an early pre-spiritual culture, possibly and reliably anticipate in his established long-term lived experience, all on his own and before anyone else, the intersubjective reality, the shared values, of a spiritual culture that lies in the far-away future? The most anyone can do is imagine such a future. Such a phantasy cannot be turned into lived experience in the total absence of other people with whom the intersubjective worldspace can only be shared when its epoch arrives.

Indeed, the idea that one individual can anticipate in lived experience a future set of social, intersubjective meanings, is in flat contradiction with one of Wilber's basic evolutionary tenets that apply to all holons on any level. This is that holons necessarily co-evolve, that 'all agency is always agency-in-communion', that 'an individual holon and a social holon' are 'inseparably interactive'( 1995: 63-65). Wilber's anticipatory theory is utterly incoherent and inconceivable within the terms of his overall evolutionary theory.

(4) His anticipatory theory is not included as one of his basic = evolutionary tenets that apply to all holons at all hierarhical levels. Why not? In other words, if a few humans can anticipate in early stages the future stages of all humans, why should this not apply at any level with regard to any type or species of holon - the basic sort of entity in his evolutionary theory? I think the answer is fairly clear. If Wilber were to generalize the anticipatory theory and try to apply it across the evolutionary board through the mineral and plant and animal kingdoms, there would simply be no supporting evidence for it, and its bizarre and incoherent nature would be immediately self-evident. He makes the theory seem plausible because it is only applied to the human relationship with god. Invoking god is an old sophistical device for obscuring improper thought.

The hidden warrant

The hidden warrant is the undisclosed warrant. It is a clear statement, never made by Wilber in any book on his spectrum that I have read, about which of his four spiritual stages, or any of their substages, he is himself stabilized on. This is a serious omission. From someone who goes on assertively and at great length about the spiritual path, we are entitled to know which of his assertions are based on established experience, which are based on occasional and episodic experience, which rest on intuition only and which on respect for some spiritual authority. We are also entitled to know what contemplative practices he uses, and to what gurus or teachers he owes allegiance. With all this information in hand, we will then have his own personal warrants for the validity of his stages. These, after all, are the warrants that really count for him.

Why should we be content with anything less? These personal warrants are the foundation warrants, the warrants which underlie the public warrants that he purveys in his books. And since the public warrants fail, the time has come for the disclosure of their personal roots. This would also be in the spirit of the transcendental science which he claims to uphold. We could compare and contrast our own set of personal data with his, and start off a genuine 'confirmation or refutation in a community of peers' of the validity of his model.

As it is, there is something immodest and inconsiderate about someone who holds forth a great deal about god and ways to god, as Wilber does in his latest book (1995), without venturing a word about his own personal experience or path. It is immodest because it leads Wilber to write with a compulsive familiarity about god in a way that seems quite unfounded and ungrounded. It also leads him to pontificate with remarkable presumption on the reported experience of other people. It is inconsiderate because for page after page it demands that the reader tolerate a continuous and wearing ambiguity: does this man really know, experientially, what he is talking about? Nor will it do to say that the text will tell you. Wilber himself makes the point that nobody could write like Alan Watts, and nobody did more for mystical studies, 'but it was just that - words' (1990: 198-99).


So where does all this leave Wilber's model of the four preordained stages of the spiritual path? The first answer is: unwarranted, and hence unfounded and immodest. The second answer is: incoherent, because within a theory of undetermined, innovative evolution (1995), Wilber tries to extract the future from the past. This also makes it conservative and unimaginative. The model appears to be based on an overt rationalization of a covert preference for the external authority of tradition.

What the spiritual path calls for, by contrast, and in my view, is a journey into uncharted divinity, in which autonomous persons co-operate in the use of a method of sacred inquiry of the kind that Reason has outlined, and to which I referred at the outset of this paper (Reason, 1993). In such an inquiry, as I have suggested, the internal authority of the co-inquirers is primary, and the external authority of any spiritual lineage is a contributory and secondary resource.


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Mudge, L. S. (1983) 'Hermeneutics', in A. Richardson and J. Bowden (eds), A New Dictionary of Christian Theology. London: SCM Press.

Reason, P. (1993) 'Reflections on Sacred Experience and Sacred Science', Journal of Management Inquiry. 2 (3): 273-83.

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Steiner, R. (1923) Knowledge of the Higher Worlds and it Attainment. London and New York.

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Wilber, K. (1983) Up from Eden. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Wilber, K. (1990) Eye to Eye. Boston: Shambhala. Expanded edition.

Wilber, K. (1995) Sex, Ecology, Spirituality. Boston: Shambhala.

Wilber, K., Engler, J., and Brown, D. P. (1986) Transformations of Consciousness. Boston: Shambhala.

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