Thinking Integral.

There’s been a discussion on open source integral about the limitations of Wilber’s theories. For any new folks who haven’t heard much of Ken Wilber or integral theory- it’s a philosophy which attempts to integrate various aspects of reality in a coherent, mapped-out way. Brain science and spiritual experiences, the various theories, literally, about anything and everything – for the first time in history, it’s all on the table. We can begin to look at the overall picture, if there is one, and see how things may fit together better than we think. This idea, to me, is great. I support the effort and discussion. But many folks have questioned Wilber’s attempts to be “integral” as either too simplistic, or too complicated. Neat boxed in maps of consciousness, interior experience, exterior, physical correlations, to some, confuse the map with the territory. The language of learning Wilber’s theories is heavy. You can get lost in labels and terms, and before you know it – do we have a coherent, reflective map of reality, or another abstract system?

I think there is some good in developing a map, like AQAL – which stands for all quadrants, all lines/levels. My previous sentence has three words that must be described in order to go forward (see what I mean?) Quadrants – there are four. Interior, personal. Exterior, individual. Interior, cultural, exterior collective. It might be nice to get a picture of it.

So there it is. AQAL. It’s a nifty map and helps you mentally navigate the space. I like it. On the positive side, it helps you connect the dots and at least encourages that differing theories about human beings, be they in psychology or sociology or philosophy, work together. That’s the good part. They have two aspects. Horizontal and vertical. Oh boy, more terms. Well, “horizontal” simply means non-developmental. Vertical means the developmental, growth-oriented aspect of human beings. Somethings are at higher stages or levels. for instance…

Star clusters
Solar Systems

A vertical map looks something like that. Or, you can think of it even more basically: Tadpole -> frog.

Now, Wilber argues we have many levels of development, and they exist on separate lines. Emotional intelligence. Physical development. Social intelligence. We can be strong or lacking in one, two or more. It’s a nice map, once again. You can use it for discussion, surely. And at this point there doesn’t seem to be too much wrong with it, if it is presented in a way that is not too bogged down in categories.

Wilber’s ideas go far beyond this. They go into things like, 1st person, 2nd person, 3rd person, and then the complex relationships between them. That’s when I need to sit down and concentrate hard. It may be more accessible to others, but to me it seems a bit hyper-rationalized, if that makes sense. At any rate, I do find Wilber, AQAL and the language to be somewhat necessary if you’re going to try to talk about grand-theories, big pictures, etc. But perhaps equally important is something that is often lacking in many traditional approaches to this subject: the messy, nearly chaotic reality underneath the surface of neat, boxy maps and “paradigms.”

It’s not to say that speaking of paradigms isn’t useful, but the one thing that has always been lacking in major social sciences and philosophies is tackling the messiness of it all. While “integral theory” claims to be able to tackle the relationships, the complex nature of differing perspectives, see underlying patterns – I wonder if something is missing from the mandala-like quadrants of AQAL? Could the theories be more balanced if they explored the chaotic, messy reality with an equally dynamic map? Can we offer a perception, an insight that’s aerodynamic, so to speak? Something that can naturally run with the rugged landscapes of the mind and the world. AQAL is like a mathematical representation of a landscape, a good map, but it might miss some of the finer points of the relationship between things.

As a sociologist I’ve read a good deal of thinkers who, while they may not have read Wilber, have tried to tackle this problem in their own field. History is often seen as a series of paradigms, with general ideologies dominating thought at a given time and place. One thinker who has attempted to open the hood and see the details is Manuel DeLanda. Although paradigms are good starting points, one has to observe the dynamic and complicated relationships between ideas, technology, society, counter-cultures: a culture and a civilization is an ecosystem of variables. We can’t just look at the parts that make something up, we also have to understand the relationship between the parts that brings something to life, whether it be a house, a car, or a human being. It’s not summative, DeLanda argues, but multiplicative. The whole is more than the sum of its parts.

It’s not easy to begin studying society and human development this way. It requires us to think about the way we are thinking. It demands that we step out of our traditional, linear modes of analysis. Mathematically, summation is easier than multiplication. DeLanda hints that perhaps in the future, super-computers may help us dramatically understand evolution, biology, and the universe due to their ability to do infinitely complex, non-linear equations.

It might be easy to argue that postmodernists have done this, offering us a deconstructed, complicated worldview. But I believe they haven’t exactly done this, as much as they’ve been a reaction to linear ways of thinking about the world. They’ve broken down, pointed out the errors in our current way of thinking. What we need these days is something like an alternative, a way to navigate the dynamic reality of the world.

And so I think I can summarize my points so far in stating: Wilber’s ideas are wonderful, provocative even. They offer a stepping stone into a new mode of thinking, but one vital aspect that is often missing, and not just in integral books, is the dynamic relationship between things. I don’t believe we need to be harsh on Wilber in order to explore this. He’s offered us a library of material to work with. He should continue! And by all means he will. But so should we. Let’s do our best to contribute to the dialogue and offer different models, different perceptions. How can we learn to work better with the dynamic flow of life, the universe? Our theories won’t just have to change, but our way of thinking, and our attitudes will have to as well.

Note: As an example of what some theorists are doing to help evolve our understanding human societies, DeLanda has posited the “assemblage” theory.

To summarize: any given “paradigm” or ideology can be seen as an assembly of thousands, or millions of people, institutions, events – that help shape a dominant mode of thought. They aren’t homogenous either. In any paradigm, there are dozens of cracks, splits, counter-cultural movements, things happening under the surface. Things could go in different directions, if only a few variables shifted. This could be said for revolutions, wars or agriculture.

Societies evolve in messy ways, just like biological evolution does. This has encouraged me to think of human societies not as homogenous ideas or stages of development, but heterogenous and complex, dynamic and alive. There is a complicated flex and flow to the evolution of any society, and what we see as a “paradigm” or system is a “crystallization” of a set of beliefs, a congealing or cooling which settle into structure. It would be interesting to see a more dynamic theory of social science emerge in the 21st century, one that is more analogous to the messiness biological evolution while not getting lost. That would be integral thinking, too.


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