Sunday, April 27, 2008

Ken Wilber Interviewed in Salon

Steve Paulson interviews Ken Wilber (or here), maybe "the most important living philosopher you've never heard of," for Salon.

Here's the introduction:

April 28, 2008 | Ken Wilber may be the most important living philosopher you've never heard of. He's written dozens of books but you'd be hard-pressed to find his name in a mainstream magazine. Still, Wilber has a passionate -- almost cultlike -- following in certain circles, as well as some famous fans. Bill Clinton and Al Gore have praised Wilber's books. Deepak Chopra calls him "one of the most important pioneers in the field of consciousness." And the Wachowski Brothers asked Wilber, along with Cornel West, to record the commentary for the DVDs of their "Matrix" movies.

A remarkable autodidact, Wilber's books range across entire fields of knowledge, from quantum physics to developmental psychology to the history of religion. He's steeped in the world's esoteric traditions, such as Mahayana Buddhism, Vedantic Hinduism, Sufism and Christian mysticism. Wilber also practices what he preaches, sometimes meditating for hours at a stretch. His "integral philosophy," along with the Integral Institute he's founded, hold out the promise that we can understand mystical experience without lapsing into New Age mush.

Though he's often described as a New Age thinker, Wilber ridicules the notion that our minds can shape physical reality, and he's dismissive of New Age books and films like "The Tao of Physics" and "What the Bleep Do We Know." But he's also out to show that "trans-rational" states of consciousness are real, and he's dubbed the scientific materialists who doubt it "flatlanders."

Wilber's hierarchy of spiritual development -- and the not-so-subtle suggestion that he himself has reached advanced stages of enlightenment -- has also sparked a backlash. Some critics consider him an arrogant know-it-all, too smart for his own good. His dense style of writing, which is often laced with charts and diagrams, can come across as bloodless and hyper-rational.

When I reached Wilber by phone at his home in Denver, I found him to be chatty and amiable, even laughing when he described his own recent brush with death. He's a fast talker who leaps from one big idea to the next. And they are big ideas -- God and "Big Self" and why science can only tell us so much about what's real.

Nothing new to Wilber fans here, but the discussion includes science and religion, the pre/trans fallacy, meditation and interior experience, the neuroscience of compassion, brain waves, and so on -- the usual topics.

Here is one good passage:

What about brain-imaging studies? Various neuroscientists are hooking up Buddhist monks and Christian nuns to brain-scanning technology, and they see changes in brain activity during meditation or prayer. But can they tell us anything fundamental about the nature of consciousness?

Yes and no. What's starting to show up are significant and unique fingerprints of these meditative states on the brain. That's been demonstrated with people who do a type of meditation that's said to increase compassion -- imagining someone else who's in pain and breathing in their pain, creating a feeling of oneness with that person. These people start showing distinctive gamma wave patterns. These gamma waves show up almost no place else. But let me tell you what it doesn't prove. The claim that it's a higher mental state can only be made if you're looking at it from the inside. We say that waking is more real than dreaming. But brain waves won't tell you that. The brain waves are just different. You can't say one is more real than the other.

This raises a fundamental question about the whole mind-brain problem. Virtually all neuroscientists say the mind is nothing more than a 3-pound mass of firing neurons and electrochemical surges in the brain. Why do you think this view is wrong?

It reduces everything. And you can make no distinctions of value. There's no such thing as love is better than hate, or a moral impulse is better than an immoral impulse. All those value distinctions are erased.

But is that scientific view wrong?

At this point, you enter the philosophy of science, and the argument is endless. Is there nothing but physical stuff in the universe? Or is there some sort of interiority? We're not talking about ghosts and goblins and souls and all that kind of stuff. Just: Is there interiority? Is there an inside to the universe? And if there is interiority, then that is where consciousness resides. You can't see it, but it's real. This is the claim that phenomenology makes.

For example, you and I are attempting to reach mutual understanding right now. And we say, aha, I understand what you're saying. But you can't point to that understanding. Where does it exist? But if you take a phenomenology of our interior states, then you look at them as being real in themselves. And that's where values lie and meaning lies. If you try to reduce those to matter, you not only lose all those distinctions, but you can't even make the claim that some are right and some are wrong.

But somewhere down the road -- 50 years from now, 500 years from now -- once neuroscience becomes much more advanced, will scientists be able to pinpoint where these values and thoughts come from?

I'm saying we'll never understand it. The materialists keep issuing promissory notes. They always promise they're going to do it tomorrow. But interior and exterior arise together. You can't reduce one to the other. They're both real. Deal with it.

Not bad introduction to other ways of thinking for those new to Wilber. However, he doesn't deal with the "critics" issue any better than usual -- it's their ego, not mine -- not only that, but he essentially doesn't answer the question about his arrogance (see the Wyatt Earpy episode).

You have many admirers. You also have critics. One objection is that you are too full of yourself. The science writer John Horgan, in his book "Rational Mysticism," said the vibe he got from you was, "I'm enlightened. You're not." How do you respond to this charge of arrogance, the sense that you've unlocked the secrets of the universe and no one else has?

A lot of people see me as much more humble. I continue to change because I'm open to new ideas and I'm very open to criticism. Basically, I've taken the answers that have been given by the great sages, saints and philosophers and have worked them into this integral framework. If that vibe comes across as arrogant, then John would get that feeling. Of course, he was trying to do the same thing, so I would have brushed up against his own egoistic projections. But some people do agree with him and feel that my support for this integral framework comes across as arrogant.

All I've done is provide a map. We're always updating it, always revising it, based on criticism and feedback and new evidence. You see those maps that Columbus and the early explorers drew of North and South America, where Florida is the size of Greenland? That's how our maps are. What's surprising to me is the number of savvy people who've expressed support for my work.

It's good to know some things in life are constant.

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