Integral 101

First premise: there is spirit. For all the rhetoric of the atheists, there is overwhelming evidence of a realm beyond what traditional science describes, including cutting-edge science itself, such as quantum mechanics. While it has been co-opted by many new age and other groups, quantum mechanic shows that reality is closer to what has traditionally been described by mystics. In fact, in his book Quantum Questions, Integral philosopher Ken Wilber shows through their own writings that the great quantum physicists were, to a man, mystics. But the primary evidence comes from what may be called the “wisdom traditions,” of all cultures and religions, which when viewed in their proper context – as metaphors – show a stunning degree of agreement on the nature of reality. More on this below.

Ken Wilber

Second premise: there is evolution. For all the rhetoric of the creationists with their alternative intelligent design, the fact of evolution (and it is a fact, natural selection as its mechanism is a theory) is nothing less than consciousness becoming conscious of itself.

With those premises out of the way, Integral theory is a map that integrates the major domains of reality: the physical (biology, physics), the social (sociology, anthropology, political science), and what could be called our interior (psychology, religion, philosophy), into a meta-system. And here is where it collides with one of the prevailing approaches of academia: postmodernism. Postmodernism is a view that allows for the simultaneous existence of multiple worldviews, even within an individual. It is suspicious of meta narratives, or grand narratives that claim to be independent of their cultural context. Because Integral makes this claim to be cross-cultural, it violates postmodernism’s prime directive. And yet Integral sees postmodernism as a high level of consciousness development, and it is this development that makes up the next component of Integral theory, and to which we turn next.

Postmodernism ignores psychology

Postmodern theory denies, or at least opposes all heirarchy, and for good reason, oppressor heirarchies have dominated the last millennia of history – the Catholic Church, authoritarian governments, bureaucracies, the military and police forces have forced often arbitrary structures of domination on countless millions in the name of power and order. But few would deny that parents can and usually should have fairly authoritarian control over their children, precisely because they are developing. Indeed, there is an entire field in psychology devoted to this, Developmental Psychology. In order to oppose all hierarchy, it becomes necessary for postmodernism to ignore at least the developmental aspects of psychology. This is why you probably won’t see postmodern developmental psychologists. So we see that accepted and valid forms of hierarchy do exist, but in Arthur Koestler’s terminology, these could be called holarchies – they consist of wholes (individuals) which are simultaneously parts (of larger structures, such as societies).

Development and evolution

Developmental Psychology shows that individuals go through stages, each of which consists, in a general sense, of a gradual reduction in egocentrism or narcissism. Most people understand this either explicitly or intuitively, but tend to assume that this development simply stops somewhere around age 18 or 21, and that after that, we are all basically equal. This is what Robert Bly has scathingly called the “sibling society” – a society without even legitimate heirarchy.

Here the wisdom traditions as diverse as Buddhism and Gnostic Christianity agree that development – of what we’ll call consciousness – can continue through multiple stages toward what we could call enlightenment, nirvana, or a state of grace. It is by understanding this cross-cultural map that one can see the direction of (you might say) evolution, whether personal or societal. Societal evolution or development reflects the “center or gravity” of a society. Education obviously becomes a major factor here, but it also tends to produce narcissism, which is precisely what development is meant to avoid, and we’re back where we started. So the type of education is important here, and an Integral theory can provide the map needed to avoid such regression.

Below is Ken Wilber’s Integral map, which shows the four quadrants, or domains in which development (evolution) occurs. It is divided into sections based on the interior (thought, theory, ideas) and exterior (physical objects), individual and collective dimensions:

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One response to “Integral 101

  1. Pat

    Nice article. I just wrote one on the Integral Heart Foundations work in Guatemala. It’s about applying the theory to real life inequities among the indigenous in Guatemala. You might like it!


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