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Book of the Week: against intellectually inspired spiritual authoritarianism

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
23rd August 2010


* Book: Bald Ambition: Critique of Ken Wilber’s Theory of Everything. Jeff Meyerhoff. Inside the Curtain Press, 2010

Ken Wilber, the creator of a contemporary form of integral theory, even if not academically recognized, is a towering intellectual and philosophical figure. One of the first books to examine in a brilliant way it’s intellectual basis and authoritarian bias, was Bald Ambition by Jeff Meyerhoff.

This must read master piece is now available in hardcover and the free version is still online.

Here’s a short presentation of the book.

Author’s Motivation

“I decided to write Bald Ambition after reading the first few pages of his magnum opus Sex, Ecology, Spirituality. It seemed so wrong-headed and contradicted what I believed and dealt with a lot of philosophical, psychological and spiritual material that I was interested in. My book was well-received from people comfortable with taking a critical stance toward Wilber, but poorly received by those who believed in his integral theory. Wilber eventually responded to the book in a recorded interview (actually a monologue), but it was obvious he hadn’t read the book and felt attacked by my criticisms of his theory. The book contributed to Wilber’s anger at Frank Visser’s publishing of a variety of views of Wilber’s work which led to Wilber’s unfortunate blog entry in June of 2006 which appeared to be a knee-jerk, rageful rant at his “critics,” but which he said was a well-considered effort to separate the higher, integral wheat from the lower, non-integral chaff. Odd behavior from someone purporting to respect intellectual debate, but clever for someone whose unconscious goal was to avoid criticism. It had the desired effect, splitting the Wilber integral community and insulating Wilber from real critique. Two Wilber admirers in the next generation have been making a good faith effort to repair the split. I now feel more sympathy for Wilber. I still think his theory is fundamentally flawed but he has improved it, although at the cost of greater complexity and less accessibility.”

2. What is wrong ‘generally’ with the scientific basis of Wilber’s work

“Orienting generalizations are the already-agreed-upon background knowledge that scholars in specific fields take to be true as they debate the issues on which they differ. Wilber claims that his integral synthesis is constructed out of this “simple but sturdy” background knowledge, and so has the validity that the natural, social, and spiritual sciences can provide. The research in this book demonstrates that Wilber does not use the orienting generalizations of the sciences as he claims. As a replacement method he quotes some great names in science. Because he does not have the authority of the orienting generalizations, Wilber tends to caricature perspectives different from his own, and thereby not confront the problems they would pose were they strongly formulated. He creates his synthesis by weaving together the ideas that he finds congenial to his outlook and fits them together to make his synthesis. This is problematic because his synthesis is supposed to be a transcendence of all less inclusive correct views, yet, actually, it excludes those arguably correct views that do not fit his particular integration.” Bald Ambition, p. 185.

3. The concept of spiritual authoritarianism

In this case wilber’s intellectual version of it:

“[Wilber’s] contention that people who have an experience of the Ultimate have some advantage over those who have not in debates about the cross-cultural similarity or dissimilarity of mysticisms may seem convincing, but when examined more closely really has no bearing on such debates. According to Wilber’s journals, his non-dual experience dates from the later ’80s. He wrote The Spectrum of Consciousness in the late ’70s, and in it made his argument for the perennial philosophy. Does his not having had the ultimate mystical experience invalidate his argument? No. Let’s assume he did have by that time a glimpse of the Absolute, would it have lent more credence to his argument? No, because to argue that all the major mystical traditions lead toward the same ultimate state and to argue that it requires experiential knowledge to evaluate this requires one person to have achieved the Ultimate through all the different traditions. There is no one like that. Even having a glimpse of the Ultimate through one tradition doesn’t lend greater credence to one’s perennial philosophy arguments, because, as Wilber himself had to do in The Spectrum of Consciousness, one still has to read the relevant mystical texts and show with words that the major mystical traditions all point to the same goal. It’s the validity of the textual analysis that is the ultimate determiner of correctness, whether you’re the Dalai Lama, Steven Katz, or Ken Wilber. This is why it’s a losing battle for mystics to try to prove the ultimacy of their insight using the tools of rational debate. And it is why mystics say that one must transcend language and conceptuality to realize the ultimate insight.” Bald Ambition, p. 110.

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