Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Karl Higley - Spirit, Kosmos, Essence

Karl Higley, who blogs at In My Integral Estimation, posted this great article at Integral Life. Karl is one of the bright young thinkers in the integral movement, so be sure to subscribe to his blog.

Spirit, Kosmos, Essence

Spirit is the essence of the Kosmos.

This common sense proposition is sometimes taken as a literal truth that describes the actual nature of reality. Is this simple statement really as straightforward as it seems? What else must one accept for this statement to make sense? Where does it lead?

On closer inspection, the idea that Spirit is the essence of the Kosmos is quite complex, highly metaphysical, and heavily reliant on metaphor. In Philosophy In The Flesh, Lakoff and Johnson point out that there are several assumptions that must be made to arrive at such a concept. (I'll quote from them rather extensively, in order to build a foundation for future posts on related topics.)

The first assumption is that it is not absurd to make statements about what is; in other words, that the "world makes systematic sense, and we can gain knowledge of it." Following from this assumption, it makes sense to "seek general knowledge, knowledge about kinds of things, not just particular knowledge that pertains only to a single entity." They formulate this idea in two related parts:

The Folk Theory of General Kinds

Every particular thing is a kind of thing.

The Folk Theory of Essences

Every entity has an "essence" or "nature," that is, a collection of properties that makes it the kind of thing it is and that is the causal source of its natural behavior.

These theories, taken together, lead to what they call

The Foundational Assumption of Metaphysics

Kinds exist and are defined by essences.

And, of course, kinds themselves are sorts of things, and so kinds are not only defined by the essence of the particular entities which they generalize, but also have an essence themselves, which means they can be categorized into kinds of kinds (and so on.) From this point, there are several options:

"1. The world may not be systematically organized, or we may not be able to know it, above a certain level of generalization, which might even be relatively low in the hierarchy of categories. In other words, there may be a limit to the systematicity of the world or to its intelligibility.

2. The hierarchy of categories may go on indefinitely, with no level at which an all-inclusive category exists. In this case, the world might be systematic, but not completely intelligible. The process of gaining knowledge of the world, would be an infinite, and hence uncompletable task.

3. The iteration up the hierarchy of categories and essences might terminate with an all-inclusive category, whose essence would explain the nature of all things. Only in this case would the world be totally intelligible, at least in principle."

Wilber seems somewhat undecided between these options. His discussion of holarchy often seems to lean toward option #2 -- "turtles all the way up" -- but at the same time his spiritual leanings also lead him to make use of option #3.

Lakoff and Johnson summarize the third option this way:

The Folk Theory of the All-Inclusive Category

There is a category of all things that exist.

This theory is the crucial step to arriving at the ideas of Spirit and Kosmos:

"From the Folk Theory of Essences, it follows that this all-inclusive category has an essence, and from the Folk Theory of Intelligibility, it follows that we can at least in principle gain knowledge of that essence. This all-inclusive category is called Being, and its essence is called the Essence of Being.

The third alternative, that the world is completely systematic and knowable, is the most hopeful, least skeptical attitude that someone concerned with seeking general knowledge can take. However, such optimism brings with it a substantial ontological presupposition, that there is a category of Being, and that, since it must have an essence, there is an Essence of Being."

Translate Kosmos as Being and Spirit as Essence of Being, and you can see that "Spirit is the essence of the Kosmos" is a much more complex idea that it appears to be at first. The underlying assumptions are so common-place that we rarely consciously realize that we're making them. These assumptions are not only the source of unrecognized complexity, but also the reason that such a statement is inescapably metaphysical.

(Without the metaphysical ideas of kinds and essences, Kosmos and Spirit are unintelligible and meaningless. It is therefore difficult to take Wilber's claims that his excepts from Kosmos, Vol. 2 are "post-metaphysical" very seriously.)

Lakoff and Johnson also note that the Folk Theory of Essences is metaphorical -- meaning that it maps inferences from one realm of experience onto another.

"The Folk Theory of Essences is metaphorical in two ways. First, the very idea of an essence is based on physical properties that compose the basis of everyday categorization: substance and form. For example, a tree is made of wood and has a form that includes a trunk, branches, leaves, roots, bark, and so on. It also has a pattern of change (another kind of form) in which the tree grows from seed to sapling to mature specimen. These are the physical bases on which we cateogrize an object as a tree: substance, form, and pattern of change. Where an essence is seen as a collection of physical properties, it is seen as one or more of these things. In the case of abstract essences, these three physical properties become source domains for metaphors of essence: Essence As Substance, Essence As Form, and Essence As Pattern Of Change.

The second way in which the concept of essence is metaphorical concerns its role as a causal source. The intuition is this: If a tree is made of wood, it will burn. Because it has a trunk and stands erect, it can fall over. The idea is that the natural behavior of a tree is a causal consequence of the properties that make it the kind of thing it is: The tree burns because it is made of wood. We have the same intuition about abstract essences, like a person's character. Honest people will tell the truth. Their essence as honest is the causal source of their truth telling. In such cases, we are clearly in the domain of the metaphorical, because we are attributing to a person a metaphorical substance called 'character,' which has causal powers."

Since the idea of essence is metaphorical, the idea of Spirit is also metaphorical. It relies on mapping our physical intuitions about composition and causality onto the abstract all-inclusive category, giving it an essence that determines its nature and causal properties. From this metaphorical mapping, we can see that there are some natural inferences to be drawn:

  • Spirit is the most fundamental substance of the Kosmos.
  • Spirit is the form of the Kosmos.
  • Spirit is the pattern of change of the Kosmos.
  • Spirit is the causal source of the Kosmos.

I don't think those statements will be at all unfamiliar to anyone interested in spirituality. These are the dominant metaphors used to eff the ineffable. Different authors, teachers, and traditions favor different subsets and variations of these metaphors, but the underlying forms are used quite widely.

I think this shows that Spirit is a rather complex cognitive phenomenon. If one is unaware of the role assumptions about the world play in constructing the concepts of Spirit and Kosmos, it is very tempting to take them as things that really, objectively exist, and then reason and draw inferences about the world from that point. I think this is fairly dangerous, and potentially a substantial impediment to authentic second tier thinking.

Approaches that view Spirit literally as the substance, form, or pattern of change of the Kosmos often become little more than a collection of rational orange concepts infused with mysticism. In particular, the idea of the Kosmos as evolving in a particular direction, driven or pulled by Spirit, reflects a literal understanding of the metaphor Spirit As Kosmic Pattern of Change, while also relying on one of orange's favorite metaphors: progress as travel along a spectrum of quality in the direction of increasing value.

(It's easy to guess that orange will understand and like this metaphor once you note that it requires only a single perspective, and is largely compatible with the understanding of everything as an object. This metaphor is precisely what makes orange so focused on goal-seeking and optimization -- they are both easily conceptualized as making gradual progress toward a destination or in "the right direction.")

Taking Spirit As Kosmic Pattern of Evolution literally makes evolution and development unarguable. After all, the pattern of evolution and development is taken to be the very nature of the Kosmos! This understanding is highly metaphysical and also highly metaphorical, whether acknowledged or not.

Without recognizing our role in constructing the very ideas we are taking as premises, it is all too easy to take our conclusions as inevitably following from the natural way of things and as reflecting the actual truth of reality. That takes us right back to the sort of thinking that the blue and orange memes are rightfully criticized for: the assumption of one truth, whether given from on high or discovered in the lowest of the low. When that kind of thinking is used to formulate moral prescriptions, it results in a universalizing -- and therefore marginalizing and power-infused -- ethics. If we are to truly transcend and include post-modern wisdom, this sort of ethics is simply unacceptable.

On the other hand, an awareness of the metaphorical inferences underlying spiritual teachings and the idea of Spirit itself leads to a very different sort of ethics. With such an awareness, spiritual teachings (like all ideas and concepts) can be considered to be the products of a process of meaning-making which draws on our individual perspectives and experiences. An ethics based on this undertanding focuses not on rationally finding, mapping, and teaching the real nature of reality, nor on pluralistically respecting irreconcilable differences while recognizing a simultaneous unity, but instead on drawing connections between different methods of making meaning and on coordinating the actions of people using different conceptual frameworks. That, I believe, is a real path forward from post-modernism to second tier and yellow thinking.

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