Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Sergey Badaev - Individual and Social in the Integral Theory of Ken Wilber

The interface and interconnection between the individual and the collective (cultural and social) is one of the weaker areas in Wilber's model, from my perspective. Many of the most prominent and important theorists in this realm have been ignored or excluded from Integral Psychology (2000) and Integral Spirituality (2007).

In this article from Integral World, Sergey Badaev analyzes a single chapter (chapter 7) in Wilber's Integral Spirituality - it's an interesting article, although I'd like to see it expanded and more detailed in its analysis. I think Badaev has valid observations, but the arguments need to be more nuanced in their unpacking, which requires a longer article than most people will read online.

Individual and Social in the Integral Theory of Ken Wilber

Analysis of the 7th chapter of his book 'Integral Spirituality'

Sergey Badaev

Wilber starts 7th chapter of his book Integral Spirituality with a claim that for lots of people it is difficult to understand relationship between an individual and a group and it is a problem which a lot of thinkers have been grappling with for millennia. Then Wilber gives a few versions of this problem:

  1. If the individual is an organism, is society an organism also?
  2. Is society made of individual organisms in the same way individual organisms are made of cells and molecules?
  3. Is Gaia a single giant organism, made of all living beings?

First of all, let us analyse the very problem or question under consideration. The first version suggests that the question should be a matter of terminology. The answer would depend on how we define "organism" and what essential features we include in the definition. If a society has these features we call it an "organism", if not, we do not.

The second version is formulated in a rather strange way. It seems that any sensible person would agree that individuals are components of society and from this point of view it would not be wrong to say that society consists of individual organisms. But does society consist of organisms exactly the same way as organisms consist of cells and molecules? This formulation seems to be quite vague without clarification of what 'the same way' means here.

In the third version Gaia is mentioned which is usually considered as a planetary system of Earth. The term 'Gaia' in this context comes from so called 'Gaia hypothesis' by James Lovelock which he introduced at the end of 1960s. The idea was to view our planet as a living self-organising system, that is a sort of a super organism.

Wilber's formulation is not quite correct because according to Lovelock's definition of the term Gaia includes not only living things but all non-living components as well. In spite of this Wilber defines Gaia as a network of procaryotic cells and insists that it was an original definition by Lovelock.

After all, Wilber gives another version of the question which can be presented as follows.

  1. What exactly is that relationship between an organism and society?

Quite probably, what Wilber means here is the question of what the features and qualities are that make an individual and society similar from systemic point of view and what makes them different.

Let us follow Wilber's thoughts and see what he suggests as an answer to this question.

He starts with drawing our attention to the fact that according to the widely accepted idea, the world is organised hierarchically and that there is "a sequence of nested spheres of relational being, with each higher sphere enveloping the lower, until you have the entire universe". Although Wilber calls this idea one of the most popular responses to the question, hierachical structure per se does not give any clear answer to the relationship of an individual and society.

To illustrate the hierarchical structure of the world Wilber gives two schemes. One is taken from a popular book on eco-holism (unfortunately, Wilber gives no reference).

(Scheme 1)

  • Sub-quantum vacuum
  • Quantum events
  • Atoms
  • Molecules
  • Cells
  • Organisms
  • Families
  • Communities
  • Nations
  • Species
  • Ecosystems
  • Biosphere
  • Universe

The second is taken from Alwyn Scott's Stairway to the Mind.

(Scheme 2)

  • Quantum events
  • Atoms
  • Molecules
  • Biochemical structures
  • Nerve impulses
  • Neurons
  • Assemblies of neurons
  • Brain
  • Consciousness
  • Culture

With regards to these schemes Wilber comes to a conclusion that they are flawed with the same basic confusion. In order to demonstrate this he mentions a principle of such hierarchical sequences. According to this principle every upper level of this sequence should include the lower one as its component. Wilber draws our attention that in the first scheme ecosystems go after nations and that means ecosystems cannot appear in evolution before nations appear. That is obviously wrong.

In the second scheme consciousness and culture appear after brain as if they were material structures of a higher level than the brain. That is not correct as well. Putting aside a question how typical and widely circulated those schemes are, let us have a look at what Wikipedia suggests. You can find there a similar sequence of levels which is called 'the levels of biological organisation' (Wikipedia )

(Scheme 3)

  • Atom
  • Molecule
  • Organelle
  • Cell
  • Tissue
  • Organ
  • Organ system
  • Organism
  • Population
  • Biocoenosis
  • Ecosystem
  • Biosphere

I hate to think that Wilber uses a straw man argument but the third scheme does not have those flaws that Wilber criticises in the first and the second schemes.

Anyway, what does Wilber suggest as an alternative?
Read the whole article.

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