After re-posting the sequence of articles about Jenny Wade’s theory of the levels of consciousness, I finally got round to reading a book by Ken Wilber that has been lurking on my shelves for 10 years at least, I suspect. It is modestly titled A Theory of Everything: an integral vision for business, politics, science and spirituality. (This is not to be confused with a Bahá’í book by Robert Parry with a slightly more unassuming title, A Theory of Almost Everything, which had come out seven years earlier in 1993 or with Stephen Hawking’s unauthorised The Theory of Everything, which came out in 2007.)
The title, of course, is partly tongue in cheek but not entirely. The book does have an ambitious agenda and one that understandably excites me given my attempts to organise my experience and thinking around the idea of interconnectedness (see diagram above).
Hang on a moment though. While reading Wilber’s book and drafting the review, in rapid succession I gobbled up two other tomes.
First, after something like four years, I finally finished reading The Empathic Civilization by Jeremy Rifkin. Such a time span is not unusual for me as I read books on rather the same principle as they make Russian dolls. Each book I start triggers me to start reading another until I have several books in progress nested one within the other. Often the one I started last is finished first before I trace my steps back to its predecessor (or not, as the case may be). You can see elements of this pattern as I describe my process now with these three books.
I very much want to record my response to this massive survey of the current state of our civilisation and its origins but I am aware that it overlaps with Wilber’s thesis in some of it themes.
As if that were not complicated enough, a friend left a comment on my blog recommending I look at John Fitzgerald Medina’s book, Faith, Physics & Psychology. Not only does this book contain a detailed critique of Wilber, and cannot be ignored for that reason alone, but it also torpedoed some of my blindly accepted assumptions about the Native American civilisation and if they sink completely upon further investigation of the facts they were clearly prejudices. His book also caused me to rehabilitate Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs from my relatively low opinion of it.
There is no way I can do justice to the combined 1000 plus pages of these two books and Wilber’s theory all in one sequence of posts without driving you all nuts. So, I have decided to go ahead and publish this sequence on Wilber, with some acknowledgement of Medina’s caveats and Rifkin’s perspectives, before then exploring in appropriate depth the other two books at greater leisure over a longer time span.
Did I hear a sigh of relief?
While I particularly want to focus on certain aspects of Wilber’s model in detail, especially where he deals with how his way of looking at things helps us analyse current challenges (the second post) and how we might focus our energies better on progressing our own personal development (the third post), I do need to give a sense of the overview first, I think.
The best place to start the overview is with a series of diagrams. The first is a very simple schematic (page 71).
First of all we need to understand the distinctions he is making which will be located in four quadrants. The left hand quadrants are what he terms ‘subjective,’ by which he means experiential i.e. located within our consciousness. Consciousness can be either individual and concerned with our thoughts, feelings and decisions (Upper Left), or collective and concerned with our shared understanding of the world and what we derive from that (Lower Left). The right hand quadrants focus on the external, material and objectively observable and measurable. The Upper Right focuses on the individual, for example studying the brain, and the Lower Right focuses on the collective, for example social structures.
The next diagram goes into more detail about the individual in relation to his model of reality. It is important to hold these in mind as an aid to understanding the eventual full complexity of what he goes on to unpack in terms of all the implications of the quadrants. The Lower Right terrestrial or earthly, which includes social structures and systems in the observable world, correlates with the body/brain. The Mind-Soul-Spirit hierarchy at the individual level is an Upper Left system and as a culture is at the bottom left. The latter two obviously interpenetrate. I will say more about that later. Reality is the ground on which all this stands.
Finally, we need to take a closer look at this more complicated diagram in order to see how different levels are at work in each quadrant.
It is best not to get too concerned about some of the detail in the diagram above, especially when terms such as ‘uroboric’ (cyclical, self-devouring) will probably mean nothing at all without a dictionary at hand and even with one the exact implications will still not be clear.
His theory of quadrants is not without its critics, among them Michelle Mairesse. She feels they are ‘rather Procrustean.’ She also takes issue with specifics. She quotes, for example, A Brief History of Everything – page 99):
Wilber goes on to adduce many things from his display of nests. “Whereas everything in the Right Hand has simple location, nothing in the Left Hand path has simple location. This doesn’t mean that value, consciousness, pride, desire aren’t real, and this is where interpretation comes in. Surfaces can be seen, but depth must be interpreted.” . . . .
Unfortunately, his Quadrants appear to be skewed to favor his interpretations. His upper Right-Hand Quadrant, for example, begins at the atomic level. Why not the sub-atomic level? Is it because not all sub-atomic particles have simple location?
Levels and Holons
What most needs to be understood for present purposes is that each quadrant contains its own form of development. This is perhaps easier to see in the right quadrants. Atoms are, perhaps misleadingly, the simplest form in the Upper Right and the sequence from there is easy to track until SF1 arrives.
I don’t plan to deal with those conceptual challenges in detail as they are not core issues for present purposes. What is important though is to understand one of his main points: that every lower stage in all quadrants is contained in the next one above. This constitutes a ‘holarchy’ in his terminology. He explains as follows (page 40):
The ingredients of these hierarchies are holons. A holon is part of a whole that is a part of other wholes. For example, a whole atom is part of a whole molecule; a whole molecule is part of a whole-cell; a whole cell is part of a whole organism. . . . . Reality is composed of neither holes nor parts, but wholes/parts, or holons. Reality in all domains is basically composed of holons.
An acceptance of the reality of holons, as per this model, is what for Wilber constitutes second tier thinking, a higher level than the far more prevalent first tier thinking.
He is very keen that we should understand the power of the Left Hand Quadrants, which he feels have been underexplored and undervalued in current materialistic narrow science paradigms. A key point for him is that this means we have failed to understand fully the depth effects at work on the consciousness side of the diagram: this, combined with a failure to understand the way this kind of nested hierarchy works, accounts for many of our problems and our blindness to their possible solutions.
Levels of Consciousness
We need next to look at his analysis of the different levels of development in the two left hand quadrants by means of one of his more user friendly diagrams. His model is similar but not identical to that of Jenny Wade, already explored on this blog (see links in the opening sentence of this post).
We’ll start with his diagram, hopefully made easier to digest by the numbering and colours I have added. From a Bahá’í point of view, that he as well as Wade has nine levels is a bonus.
1. Level of basic survival (Archaic-Instinctual): Seen in first human societies and in new born infants. Approximately 0.1% of the world’s population.
2. Level of animistic thinking, good-bad dichotomies (Magical-Animistic): Seen in magical ethnic beliefs, gangs and corporate ‘tribes.’ Approximately 10% of the world’s population.
3. Level of the self as distinct from the tribe: egocentric (Power Gods): Seen in feudal kingdoms, gang leaders, and New-Age Narcissism. 20% of the population: 5% of the power.
4. Level of meaning, direction and purpose (Mythic Order): based on a ruler and rules. Seen in codes of chivalry, totalitarianism and religious fundamentalism. 40% of the population: 30% of the power.
5. At this level or ‘wave’ the self seeks truth and meaning in individualistic terms (Scientific Achievement): highly achievement-oriented. Seen in the Enlightenment, Wall Street, secular humanism and liberal self-interest. 30% of the world’s population: 50% of the power.
6. The level of communitarian bonding, ecological sensitivity and networking (The Sensitive Self): Seen in postmodernism, humanistic psychology, liberation theology, Greenpeace etc. 10% of the population, 15% of the power.
You can see from what he describes that the level of development in the individual can be closely paralleled by the social/cultural level and vice versa. A person functioning at the same level as the social culture (s)he inhabits will be more comfortable than someone who is not.
From there it gets even more interesting for me.
With the completion of the green meme, human consciousness is poised for a quantum jump into ‘second-tier thinking.’
(I will ignore the fact that a quantum jump for a physicist is tiny. As the BBC put it, when talking about the Bond series ‘most of us are familiar with the term quantum leap, to describe a sudden and large-scale-shift in something. Physicists however also use this in the opposite sense, a typical quantum leap being the smallest possible change in the energy level of an electron.’ So, I’ll see this as a metaphor of the qualitative difference between the two tiers.)
He quotes Clare Graves (page 11) as describing it as a ‘momentous leap’ where ‘a chasm of unbelievable depth of meaning is crossed.’ We can then think ‘both vertically and horizontally.’ We ‘vividly grasp the entire spectrum of interior development.’ We see how important ‘each level, each meme, each wave’ is and that ‘each wave goes beyond . . . its predecessor, and yet it includes or embraces it in its own makeup.’ He gives the example of the cell again, which ‘transcends but includes molecules, which transcend but include atoms.’
He contends (page 12) that ‘none of the first tier memes… can fully appreciate the existence of the other memes.’ They each think their own world-view is correct and attack if it is challenged. On the other hand, ‘second-tier thinking appreciates the necessary role which all of the various memes play.’ It is ‘instrumental in moving from relativism to holism, or from pluralism to integralism.’
We’ll be looking at aspects of that in more detail later.
He then goes on to complete his description, at least as far as he can.
7. At this integrative level life is seen as a kaleidoscope of natural hierarchies. 1% of the population: 5% of the power.
8. At this holistic level energies unite feeling with knowledge. It sometimes involves the emergence of a new spirituality and detects mystical forces. 0.1% of the population: 1% of the power.
Second tier thinking is, in his view, the ‘leading edge’ of ‘collective human evolution.’
He gives no detailed description of level 9, probably because he feels no one alive is there yet.
Getting Bogged down in Green
A problem he is acutely aware of is that level 6 (green) gets stuck.
He gives it credit for its tolerant pluralism. It has protected human rights and the environment. It has rightly criticized the ‘often exclusionary, patriarchal, sexist, and colonialistic agendas’ of the blue and orange levels below it. But, ‘it has also turned its guns on all post green stages as well, with the most unfortunate results.’ It is highly ‘subjectivist.’ Individual preferences largely determine truth values, if no harm is being done: ‘what is right is simply what individuals and cultures have agreed upon at any given moment; there are no universal claims for knowledge or truth; each person is free to find his or her own values . . .’
In his view, and he goes on to explore this in a whole chapter to itself, ‘because pluralistic relativism has such an intensely subjectivistic stance, it is especially prey to narcissism.’ This attraction is so strong (page 28) people get ‘fixated to the green meme’ and will not let it go so they can move onwards and upwards.
Rifkin has much to say about this trap of narcissism to which I will be returning in far more detail in a separate sequence of posts. A brief quote will have to do for now (page 417):
The countercultural movement of the 1960s and early 1970s was not without its own shortcomings. More than a few observers looked into the eyes of the young free spirits and saw not a new level of empathic sensibility but only a rampant, carefree narcissism.
He also quotes an American sociologist, Philip Rieff (page 418):
Comparing theological consciousness with the new psychological consciousness, Rieff snorted that while ‘religious man was born to be saved; psychological man is born to be pleased.’ . . . . [T]he evocation of feelings becomes the ultimate “turn on” and being a person of good character, accountable to immutable truths is replaced by an actor playing out various identities while engaged in pleasurable mind games.
In the interests of brevity and moving onto other key areas I have simplified his argument here and anyone interested in grasping his full meaning should read chapter 2 – ‘Boomeritis’ – for themselves.
We will need to wait till the next post to explore some of the implications of all this. Hopefully things will become a bit less technical then.
 It is perhaps worth adding that, in Wade’s view expressed in Changes of Mind, conformist awareness (page 117) ‘is thought to represent the mainstream consciousness in civilised cultures, and it is tellingly labelled institutional, conventional, traditional, and conformist – the designation used here.’ The implication is that a huge proportion of people will currently live their whole life at this level in our culture. Studies such as those by Pettigrew of discrimination under apartheid in South Africa and discrimination in the American south of the 60s, strongly suggest that as much as 60% of any population could be in the conformist category. Stanley Milgram’s and Philip Zimbardo’s separate but equally disturbing findings point in the same direction.
For a recent discussion of where this desire to conform can lead us see the Guardian article on whistle blowing. This is why people who blow the whistle on powerful organisations are all too often left isolated, deserted even by those who said they would stand by them. Andrew Smith in the Guardian piece explains: ‘. . . even the strongest-willed individuals find the burden of standing out from the crowd unbearable over time . . . . and we have a clear picture of ourselves as social creatures who, for the most part, would rather be wrong than isolated.’
 I have found it helpful to bear in mind Wade’s views on those levels, which in her hierarchy precede this one and in my view correspond to Wilber’s fairly closely. Her affiliative consciousness (his ‘communitarian’) is seen by Wade as one of two possible developments from her conformist level (his ‘mythic’). To simplify somewhat, if a developing self is inclined towards right-brain functioning with an emphasis on intuition and affect, the next stage will be affiliative. A left-brain bias, with a greater interest in rules than feelings, will move a developing self towards Achievement mode (Wilber’s ‘individualistic/scientific’). People may shift between these two levels before moving higher, if they ever do.
In this and many other ways I have found her model both subtler and more flexible than I understand his to be, and therefore more convincing. Rather than repeat hers here instead of his, as I was initially tempted to do, I thought it only fair (as well as less confusing) to quote his model and his colours. There are also other theories about levels of consciousness, Dabrowski’s for instance whose ideas I will be posting about later this week, and Maslow’s whose perspective I will be looking at when I come to consider John Fitzgerald Medina’s book Faith, Physics & Psychology.