Sunday, February 10, 2013

#416: Ken Wilber

Kenneth Earl Wilber II is an exasperatingly influential New Age woo-guru, fallacy-monger and garbledly ranting promoter of post-modernistically influence pseudo-philosophy (and, arguably, a cult master). His life’s work is devoted to developing (well, slab together) what he has termed “Integral Theory” (apparently his disciples wrote the Wikipedia article for him (no link); this is insane), and back in 1998 – in the manner of all supercranks – he founded the Integral Institute to teach applications of his theory (no, not to the real world, heavens forbid). He has written extensively about, well, everything, happily Dunning-Kruger-ing his way through a diverse group of fields about which he knows precariously little, and attempts to achieve what he perceives as an integration of virtually every strand of philosophy and mysticism (particularly Buddhism, obviously). He is,for instance, a creationist, though of his own stripe – as David Lane asks exasperatedly: “Can anyone seriously imagine that the real driving reason Klebsiella pneumonia bacteria mutate is because love is in air?” Wilber can.

To give a flavor of his writings (extended quote):

“Are the mystics and sages insane? Because they all tell variations on the same story, don't they? The story of awakening one morning and discovering you are one with the All, in a timeless and eternal and infinite fashion. Yes, maybe they are crazy, these divine fools. Maybe they are mumbling idiots in the face of the Abyss. Maybe they need a nice, understanding therapist. Yes, I'm sure that would help. But then, I wonder. Maybe the evolutionary sequence really is from matter to body to mind to soul to spirit, each transcending and including, each with a greater depth and greater consciousness and wider embrace. And in the highest reaches of evolution, maybe, just maybe, an individual's consciousness does indeed touch infinity—a total embrace of the entire Kosmos—a Kosmic consciousness that is Spirit awakened to its own true nature. It's at least plausible. And tell me: is that story, sung by mystics and sages the world over, any crazier than the scientific materialism story, which is that the entire sequence is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying absolutely nothing? Listen very carefully: just which of those two stories actually sounds totally insane?”

That’s the style. No prize but admiration for counting the fallacies and transitions between claims without any clear argumentative structure (and not a hince of justification of evidence) to a the most bizarre of conclusions. A pity he is persecuted by narrow-minded people who actually know what they are talking about – after all, these people only know their things in a narrow, reality-based way – and Wilber’s musings transcend such mundane things as truth, reality and reason.

You see, Wilber assigns everyone a consciousness level color. The best color is turquoise, which only 0.1% of the population has. Guess what consciousness level Wilber himself is at. And the real reason why we may not understand or agree with Wilber is, of course, not because he is an incoherent crackpot, but because we haven't evolved to his higher state of consciousness (hat tip): “Nothing that can be said in this book will convince you that a T.O.E. is possible, unless you already have a touch of turquoise coloring your cognitive palette.” At least the claim is almost as coherent as the fundamental structure of scientology.

But isn’t there science behind this? Well, you see Wilber describes the current state of the “hard” sciences as limited to “narrow science”, which only allows evidence from the “lowest realm of consciousness” (i.e. reality, observation, evidence, and reason). What he calls “broad science” would include evidence also from the symbolic, hermeneutical, and other realms of consciousness [i.e. wishfulthinking]. Ultimately and ideally, broad science would include the testimony of meditators and spiritual practitioners, since it is more likely that Wilber will get the evidence he wants that way.

Dimly aware that the accountability of such sources of evidence may be questioned, Wilber even uses his own electroencephalogram machines and other technologies to test the experiences of meditators and other spiritual practitioners. That way he achieves what he calls “integral science”. One wonders what methodology he uses to assess the evidence from these “tests” given that ordinary science, logic and reason are too narrow-minded to interpret it, but I guess we all know the answer.

But doesn’t he have a theory of everything? Oh, yes – he does. Straight from his book “A Theory of Everything”, Wilber’s theory of everything is to “invite each and all to develop their own potentials”. How deep.

Both Deepak Chopra and Billy Corgan have mentioned Wilber as an influence, as have Andrew Cohen – who also has his own understanding of evolution – and Caroline Myss. You get the idea.

Here’s Ken Wilber’s testimony on Q-Link products. Sums things up pretty well, methinks.

There is a fine discussion of his legacy here.

Diagnosis: The epitome of a hack-job, Wilber is the post-modernist, “ancient Eastern wisdom” excuse for everything crackpot and woo, packed up as self-help. And he’s extremely influential, it seems (though one wonders whether certain claims to importance might not be exaggerated by his fans).


  1. I don't think Wilber is entirely crackers. My impression is that he has a highly over-inflated opinion of himself (one writer derides him as seeing himself as being "Ken Einstein," and I agree) -- but, no, I don't think his work is without merit. The excerpt you provide as an outstanding example of his incompetence I consider to be a provocative speculation. As we look at evermore "close up" or sub-microscopic take on matter, what do we find? We find that what we would consider on a common-sense level to be matter -- solid, touchable entities bounded by clear, distinct boundaries -- becomes almost entirely space, shot through not with certainty, but probability, and an increasing lack of solidity. This is extremely well-established scientific fact. There is also the clear possibility that the act of attending to matter on that level can actually influence its presentation to us -- in other words, consciousness cannot be ruled out as being a "player" (or vector) in the deepest levels of matter. Throughout history, there have been ongoing consistent reports by highly introspective individuals saying that one's consciousness can be focused to an extremely fine level, and that at that level, the interconnectedness and essential unity of seemingly bounded pieces of matter can be directly observed. It is imprudent to ignore these highly consistent accounts springing from different time frames and cultures simply because the instrument of observation is consciousness itself. The similarity of these accounts requires that one at least take pause before writing them off as a variant of the "Jesus on a Tortilla" phenomenon. Yes, all of the above may be wrong. But, no, these speculations of Wilber's that you provide (and he clearly presents them as speculations in the excerpt you provide) are not entirely fanciful, ego-driven conjectures lacking at least a fair degree of corroborating, well-established scientific evidence. I think your joy at engaging in derisive eye-rolling limits the flexibility and subtlety of your thinking in this instance. That said, I think this is a fantastic blog that lends support to the badly needed "toxic woo cleanup" efforts of Randi, Shermer, Gardner, Brian Dunning, Robert Carroll, et. al. Thank you for your labors, my friend.

  2. Ken Wilber is a narcissist, plain and simple.....and the worst kind....a cerebral and somatic narcissist. The sort with an insatiable desire to be 'worshipped'. Don't fall for it!

  3. Ken Wilber is a genius. He operates on the razor's edge of ambiguity and vagueness whilst seducing the many other Dunning-Krueger prone narcissists that convert his bullshittery into dichotomous mind candy. The harsh social penalty for criticizing him is certain exile into that land of the unenlightened, void of wisdom, and a return to the core shame his followers are so desperaately trying to shed. He trains his followers in smug-fake authenticity, subtle condecension, while climbing Maslow's hierarchy to the summit of "Self-Assholization.