The Errant Ideas of Ken Wilber

I am still working on this article.

I learned about Ken Wilber just a few years ago, although it is clear to me now that friends and colleagues have long spoken to me about his ideas.  Although I generally think that many of his ideas have merit (I learned of similar ideas from other, more original sources), it is only more recently that I have found grounds for disagreement, and just in the past few months about his chronic illness and increasing questions about his character.  Various of his former associates have distanced themselves from him and, in 2006, he lashed out in a self-consciously shocking manner (his now infamous “Wyatt Earpy” screed), a document that is still posted on his website (I won’t post a link to it because it would require a parental advisory, but you can find it if you must by googling Ken Wilber Wyatt Earp).  It is one thing to think the thoughts he articulates there, it is another to write them down, it is yet another thing to publish them in a public forum, and it is more of another thing to keep it posted for years (over a decade by now), with a follow-up document (a part 2 to his What We Are, That We See. Part 1:  Response to Some Recent Criticism in a Wild West Fashion on his  As long as that remains posted I cannot take Wilber seriously as a “spiritual master.”  The wild west myth has done enough damage to the fabric of US society without Wilber foisting more of it on us.

When I say something like that I remind myself of Wilber’s disease and the extremes of discomfort and frustration it puts him in.  Science has proven that profanity can give temporary relief to physical and psychic pain — at the same time, one does not have to take such things out on others.  But there is not only an emotional problem with how Wilber is dealing with his illness; there is also an intellectual problem.  I don’t know the origin or status of all of Wilber’s ideas (he has written so much that I’m not sure even he can properly keep track), but his idea that spiritual masters must treat their followers in crazy ways to spark enlightenment goes off the rails.  Some of his writings state that the master must be a Rude Boy (or a Nasty Girl) in order to beat the narcissism out of their disciples as the only way they can become enlightened.  Critics have pointed out that the “masters” he cites who rely on abuse did not achieve enlightenment themselves from that kind of treatment, nor did any of the followers who were treated that way became “enlightened.”  Once this kind of idea takes hold (that the “infallible master” can “whip into shape” their followers), more than physical abuse tends to happen — it generally goes along with sexual abuse and exploitation (labor, finances).  The spiritual leader I most admire (who has spiritual communities associated with him) is Thich Nhat Hanh — he would never endorse such crazy ideas nor act in any such manner.  (For Thich Nhat Hanh’s way of leading his communities, click here.)

Critics who know Wilber better than me (or my associates) have questioned his motives, usually citing the temptations of fame and fortune (what is commonly known as the pitfalls of being a “celebrity”).  Certainly those are risks we should all be wary of, but I think I am best off following the advice of Vice President Joe Biden, who said “Don’t question their motives, question their judgement.”  And in this instance I do question Wilber’s judgment. I will do so in two more ways:  1) Wilber’s generalization that more men achieve higher spiritual states than women, and 2) that the main error of assessing spiritual development is mistaking the pre-conventional with the post-conventional.

Wilber states (Integral Psychology, 2000) that more men achieve higher spiritual states than women because women are more tied to the conventional roles of care-taking.  The problem with this is that it leads to a very individualistic and disembodied perspective on spirituality (various other writers have made the same point).  My model links mature spirituality with intimacy, gratitude and creative problem-solving, things that women tend to do better than men.  The problem for Wilber is that women can appear to be functioning in a conventionally care-giving way, but actually be enacting a spiritual role (maybe too “embodied” for a master meditator to appreciate).  In other words, there may be more going on with some women than meets the eye of Ken Wilber.  (Dr. Susanne Cook-Greuter told me that in this way she doesn’t think Wilber is “post-patriarchal.”)

On the second point:  Wilber’s ideas on conflating pre-conventional and post-conventional spirituality echoes the work of Elliot Turiel in the late 1970’s when he found that there were two kinds of moral development involved in the anti-war movement (based on Piaget’s taxonomy).  There were those who scored at the level of formal operations and were protesting the war out of principle:  it is not just to kill innocent people and that is what the war effort was doing.  Then there were those along for the ride who scored morally at pre-operational levels — they were involved for the thrills of defying their parents and engaging in sex, drugs, loud music and destructive thrill-seeking.

In a similar way, people who are “pre-conventional” in their spirituality lack the rationality of “conventional” spirituality and can thereby appear to be enlightened like those who are “post-rational.”  It is not as though the “pre-conventional” folks are charlatans who are out to dupe others — they are simply responding to internal and external stimuli in “non-conventional” ways (probably not good for getting a job), and people around them are interpreting their behavior for their own reasons.  (Oliver Sacks wrote about a youth suffering from a growing brain tumor who was thought to be a great yogi meditator by the Hare Krishna cult — his increasing symptoms were interpreted to be higher states of meditation rather than increasing brain debilitation that led to his blindness and need for lifelong hospitalization — see “The Last Hippie in An Anthropologist on Mars, 1995.)

What we need to be more concerned about in the “spiritual marketplace” is the narcissistic charlatans who put on a good show for their audiences and followers, but are in it for the attention, money, sex and/or power.  Their organizations tend to be cultish (isolating their members, making them dependent on the group and leader, maintaining secrets, etc.).  They tend to be sweetness and light in their face-to-face dealings, but quickly act to take advantage of people behind their backs.  There is that Jekyll and Hyde quality — performance artists in public, and snakes in private.

Just because something is “counter-cultural” does not mean it doesn’t have its conventions.  New Age Spirituality has many conventions that can be aped by those who have not attained the “enlightenment” they purport to represent.  In this sense they are conventional performers who lack the character trait of soul-searching (questioning one’s own motives), impressing their followers in order to exploit them.  (Yoga has a motto:  “Yoga is a practice, not a performance” —  if you are focussed on how you look to others, you won’t benefit.)

An entertaining depiction of this is in Red Skelton’s 1941 movie “Whistling in the Dark”.  The plot involves a cult residing at a mansion called “Silver Haven” where the cult leader promises lonely women that he can help them contact their dead husbands in the spirit world if they give him their possessions and live at the mansion.  Every full moon they have a silver-themed ritual with robes and all, often involving the burial of one of their members.  The part of the cult leader was played by Conrad Veidt who ritually leaves his adoring devotees with the poetically pronounced mystical phrase “We depart in radiant contentment…”

“We depart in radiant contentment…”  Notice the studied manner and attire of the cult leader. This would not be bad if his private behaviors were not so different.

In the next scene the cult leader turns on his inner circle upon finding out that the woman they just buried had a provision in her will that her nephew would receive the proceeds from the estate while he was alive.  The rest of the movie involves Red Skelton in their plot to murder the nephew.  In this frame we see the leader’s publicly serene visage turn into an ugly hostile one as he demands that his inner circle correct the mistake:

Rude Boy?  Does his underling look enlightened?

So a studied, carefully performed “non-conventional” spirituality can be as self-serving and manipulative as the conventional brain-washing of traditional religion, morality and patriotism.

Now Wilber is professing more than “non-conventional” spirituality — he is claiming direct knowledge of the inner-workings of Cosmic Evolution and its “Morphic Field.”  Are these newly minted ideas based in science and history, or are they theoretical shortcuts that conveniently create an “above it and beyond it” perch from which Wilber now judges us all?

I will not be going into details of the history and sources of Wilber’s ideas — his writings are too numerous and repetitive to merit the time (even loyal advocates of his ideas generally don’t read a majority of his writings).  Many of those familiar with his writings point out that he tends to take credit for ideas he has borrowed.  This may seem like plagiarism, but I would make the case that he twist others’ ideas for his own purposes so much that it is good that the original authors are not associated with his conclusions.  So here is my “sweeping generalizations” about Wilber’s intellectual enterprise.

The Pendulum Swings, or Not

Wilber’s critique of “green culture” may be seen as a form of “the pendulum swings” metaphor in politics:  when one ideology gains too much power, people become disillusioned and vote for a balancing ideology.  The LBJ leads to Ronald Reagan idea.  But this is based on an assumption of honest debate and evaluation of results.  It does not account for events such as the assassination of JFK, MLK, and RFK or the Gandhis of Benazir Bhutto.  These are not honest forces in the necessary debates of politics — these are crimes against humanity and if human evolution is to survive, we must come to terms with these historical facts and the challenges they present.

Wilber’s “evolutionary self-correction” perspective on Trump’s supposed triumph claims more and proves less than the ordinary pendulum metaphor.  Where is the human moral drama if history is run exclusively by some evolutionary wisdom that we just have to accept as inevitable?  Is there no free will in the actions of sadists such as Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, Putin and Trump?  Is Evolution directing the flow of money from crimes such as human trafficking, weapons smuggling, and other crimes against humanity through the Russian oligarchy, the fossil fuels industry, and the fake news propaganda machines?  Is this all necessary for the evolutionary ultimate good?  Or should we be more on to this by now and better able to resist the “shadow” of our species?

Wilber has recently released a number of works:  co-authoring a book on climate change, writing the sequel 800 page magnum opus to his original 800 page magnum opus (Religion of Tomorrow), and a free e-book on how the “greens” made Trump’s rise to power inevitable due to an “evolutionary self-correction” necessitated by the abuse of power by the environmental movement.

Nowhere does Wilber seem to manage to avoid his sweeping generalizations.  First of all, if he wants to help slow down and reverse global warming, he should help those who have done the best and the most, not add his name as an authority when he has no accomplishments to show.  President Obama showed how to get stakeholders on board, Al Gore has trained a small army of lobbyists on how to talk to people with differing values, and we don’t need Wilber’s “johnny-come-lately” advice.  Second of all, his general thesis on the Religion of Tomorrow is that he and his fellow spiritual gurus are so far advanced of most of us that world religions no longer matter and should be discarded as ancient superstitions.

But his attack on the environmental movement is the most egregious.  Readers and former followers of Wilber will point out that Wilber gathers the ideas of other thinkers and puts them into a quadrant (he mostly focuses on the individual internal quadrant since he meditates most of the time).  Others point out that his quadrant was borrowed from E.F. Schumacher (Small is Beautiful and A Guide for the Perplexed — one of the original environmentalists).  In the same vein, there is a good chance that his idea of an “inevitable evolutionary self-correction” is a re-hash of Teilhard de Chardin’s ideas of the noosphere and the omega point, where evolution itself is considered a divine force that inevitably leads to the kingdom of Christ.  Chardin’s ideas certainly have some merit (the Catholic Church has recently allowed discussion of his ideas in a positive light in seminaries and Catholic universities), but Chardin shocked his audience after WWII when he claimed that the Nazi atrocities were the inevitable birth pangs of cosmic evolution.  During the war, Chardin was safely studying paleontology in China — Victor Frankl, a German psychiatrist imprisoned by Hitler, had no such flowery view of Nazi evil.

3 sources for Wilber’s concoction:

4 quadrants, derived from environmentalist E.F. Schumacher (A Guide for the Perplexed)

Ages of Man, derived from Lewis Mumford (The Transformations of Man)

The Morphic Field, which I assume is derived from bio-chemist Rupert Sheldrake (Morphic Resonance)

The best that I can figure of his “evolutionary self-correction” is that it is akin to Teilhard de Chardin’s philosophy of evolution as inevitably leading to the omega point (or Christ center).  This is an over-all very attractive image of cosmology that was initially rejected by the Catholic Church, but more recently has been allowed a place in Catholic philosophy.  The problem Teilhard came up against was the Nazis.  He was safely in China during the war and shocked an audience after the war by saying that the Nazi experiments were a necessary part of evolution, like the birth-pangs of labor.  Well, labor is necessary, but sadism is not.  Jesus is interpreted by Christianity to have been the ultimate sacrifice — sacrifice after him is blasphemy.  One may say that the greater evil had to come in the form of systematic, industrialized genocide (the ultimate “holocaust”, although most Jews reject the religious connotation and call it the Shoah), and that was the ultimate lesson humans needed to learn to make sure it happens “never again.”

What we are up against now is that we have had “nunca mas” (never again) triumphs against fascism (e.g. Brazil, Argentina, etc.) only to have fascism return.  This is not because of some “evolutionary self-correction” but because the free choice of evil persists and we haven’t taught ourselves, each other, and our children well enough.  Capitalism has people too busy to learn and makes sure our schools don’t teach critical thinking.  Jane Loevinger made an important contribution to science and society by showing that the authoritarian personality is based on an avoidance or aversion to ambiguity.  The steel trap of certainty covering for questionable motives (or flat out bad motives such as the “greed is good” crowd) is the main problem.  As Victor Frankl said when asked about how to understand the Nazis:  “What is to understand?  They are sadists.”

So I think Wilber is blaming the victim.  I recognize the trends he rails against, particularly smarmy “post-modernism”.  But most liberals, progressives and environmentalists I know don’t subscribe to post-modern “nihilism and narcissism”, especially my African American and Hispanic friends (who don’t have the luxury of mental masturbation).  Some are as passionate and upset as those Wilber calls out for extremism, but I think that’s Wilber’s aversion to “emotionality.”  And those I work with on climate change are trained to tailor their points to the values and demographics of their audience.  They have convinced many conservatives; the only problem is that once a conservative says they believe the science on this, they get targeted and thrown out of office by big $$.