Wednesday, March 03, 2010

A Critique of Ken Wilber

Ken Wilber is an American independent scholar and a prolific and popular author who advocates what he calls and “integral” view of reality, which synthesizes truths from psychology, history, anthropology, religion, sociology, and philosophy into a unified and multidimensional worldview. Wilber is sometimes associated with the “transpersonal psychology” movement, a school of thought that attempts to incorporate mystical states of consciousness into more mainstream psychological theories. Wilber has referred to himself as a pandit (or teacher) as opposed to a guru (a spiritual advisor or leader). He believes he is bringing together a truly global philosophy for our day.

With the publication of his first book, The Spectrum of Consciousness (1977), Wilber began to attract accolades from noteworthy thinkers such as religious scholar Huston Smith and those associated with the New Age movement. Wilber himself disavows the label “New Age” because of its association with sensationalism, utopianism, and irrationality. Nevertheless, his books are typically found in the “New Age” section of bookstores and he is widely endorsed by New Age luminaries such as Deepak Chopra and Jean Houston. His book, The Marriage of Sense and Soul (2000), was endorsed by then-Vice President Albert Gore.

While attempting to reconcile theories from East and West, Wilber’s essential worldview is that of nondualistic pantheism, as expressed in Zen Buddhism and Advaita Vedanta Hinduism. Nondualism affirms that all of reality is undivided or one. The classic Hindu affirmation of this is found in the Upanishads: “Thou art that.” This means that one (the Atman) is one with the Universal Self (or Brahman). Put positively, the doctrine is called monism. All apparent dualities (of God as distinct from creation, of heaven or hell; of good or evil, of life or death) are unreal and misleading. Wilber claims that “The two-ness of experience is the fundamental lie.” The nondual reality is what Wilber calls “Spirit” or “Emptiness,” which he claims is “unqualifiable.” Therefore, the universe (which he calls the Kosmos) and persons are divine in their essence. Wilber rejects monotheism in general and Christianity in particular, viewing them as offering a lower and “tribal” or “mythic” understanding of religion and reality.

Yet instead of dismissing the world of history as illusory (or maya) as do many nondualists (such as the Hindu philosopher Sankara [788-820]), Wilber attempts to explain the evolution of consciousness as a process whereby “God-in-the-making” is externalized in the world of forms. In this sense, he resembles the German philosopher G. W. F. Hegel (1770-1831), who explored the “phenomenology of Geist” or the evolution of Spirit through various historical epochs. (Hegel, although notoriously difficult to interpret, was more likely a panentheist than a pantheistic nondualist.)

Wilber’s writings represent probably the most well-researched and systematic contemporary attempt to justify a pantheistic and nondualistic worldview. (Nevertheless, his 330 page work, A Brief History of Everything—a summary of his much longer Sex, Ecology, Spirituality—contains no footnotes.) Unlike many New Age authors, he does not appeal to parapsychological data to validate his claims, such as channeled messages, UFO contacts (which he ridicules) or information gathered from near-death experiences. Nor does he simply assert his worldview on the basis of his authority as a guru. Thus, he is often hailed as a major philosopher, and his books are being published in a collected works edition, an honor only paid to major intellectual figures. (However, his main publisher, Shambhala, which publishes his collected works, is not an academically established. Wilber is not generally accepted as a philosopher in academic circles.) Nevertheless, Wilber’s worldview is both unbiblical and riddled with philosophical errors.

Despite Wilber’s attempt to be incorporate vast amounts of material from a diversity of religions and philosophies, he offers surprisingly little about Christianity. In passing, he endorses “Gnostic Christianity” (an oxymoron, since the Gnostics were second century heretics who distorted the original teachings of Jesus), but says little about Jesus or any major Christian thinker—ancient, modern, or contemporary. He dismisses monotheism as the worship of a “mythic god” and as “exoteric” (external and superficial) religion. His controlling paradigm is that of nondualism, and every subject he addresses is interpreted by that model. For instance, he claims that Jesus awakened to the reality that “Atman is Brahman” (the individual soul is really one with the cosmic Soul), just as many other mystics have done.

In an interview in Shambhala Sun (as well as in Sex, Ecology, Spirit), Wilber misinterprets one of Jesus’ statements along pantheistic and nondualistic lines, which is typical of New Age-oriented writers. Wilber misinterprets Jesus’ declaration, “I and the Father are one,” to mean that Jesus was affirming the identity of Atman (individual self) with Brahman (the universal Self). In other words, Jesus (whom Wilber calls, “The Adept from Narareth”) was claiming to have discovered his oneness with an impersonal Christ Consciousness, just as many other mystics have done. This kind of pantheistic declaration is supposedly what lead to Jesus’ execution. Further, the church limited the possession of deity to the man Jesus alone, when, according to Wilber, everyone is divine in essence, if not in experience. Yet these nondualistic Hindu categories are utterly alien to Jesus’ authentic teachings and to the whole of Holy Scripture, which affirm one transcendent and personal God, who sent his only Son into the world to redeem it (John 3:16-18). Wilber’s interpretation of Jesus’ statement evidences what James Sire has called “worldview confusion.” Wilber wrongly imposes a nondualistic worldview onto a monotheistic and incarnational worldview.

Jesus, a Jewish monotheist, identified himself with the Creator and Lord of the universe, not with a universal and impersonal consciousness (John 8:58; 10:30). He affirmed that the central human problem was sin against God, not ignorance of one’s own oneness with Spirit, as Wilber teaches (Mark 7:21-23). Salvation is found in allegiance to Jesus himself, not by turning inward through meditation, as Wilber teaches (Matthew 11:27-30; John 3:16). Jesus never taught anything resembling pantheism or nondualism, nor did any of his apostles, all of whom were monotheists who confessed Jesus as Lord (1 Corinthians 8:4-6).

Besides endorsing an unbiblical worldview, Wilber’s worldview is internally inconsistent and does not correspond to the facts. First, Wilber’s cosmology suffers from an infinite regress problem. He claims that reality is made up of whole/parts called “holons.” A holon is complete in itself, but is made up of both smaller holons and is itself part of larger holons. For example, “a whole atom makes part of a molecule; a whole molecule makes part of a whole cell.” Wilber asserts that this “holarchy” extends infinitely in both directions: there is no smallest or greatest holon. By claiming this, Wilber avoids the idea that the universe contingent and is created by a necessary, self-existent being outside of itself (God). Instead, all we have is holons “all the way up and all the way down.” There is no room for a Creator. While it is true that physicists keep finding (or at least positing) smaller and smaller entities and astronomers have yet to exhaust the depths of the universe with their high-powered telescopes, it makes little philosophical sense to claim that the universe has no upper or lower limit. Any line is, in principle, infinitely divisible mathematically, but this does not mean that any physical object can be divided into smaller and smaller units ad infinitum. If this were the case, then any and every object would face the challenge of jumping out of a bottomless pit (the infinite regress problem). Without some fundamental building blocks, nothing gets built.

The idea that the universe is infinite in extension—there is no largest holon—fairs no better. The most widely accepted cosmologies view the universe as finite, not infinite. Moreover, the well-established Big Bang cosmology tells us that the universe had an absolute beginning in time; therefore, it is not infinite in duration. (Nor does modern cosmology allow that the universe is infinite space, matter, or energy.) If the universe had an absolute origination, then it makes good sense to claim that this beginning was caused by an agent (or First Cause) outside of the universe. These evidences point to theism, not Wilber’s pantheism, which denies the existence of a transcendent Creator.

Additionally, Wilber’s concept of an infinite holarchy is incompatible with his own stated nondualism, which allows for no parts at all. Parts and whole divides up reality. But for Wilber, all is one—nothing more. Wilber’s entire scheme of whole/parts is dualistic to the core, and so irreconcilable with his denial of “two-ness” or duality.

Second, Wilber’s nondualism excludes any development of the universe or cultures through time. If all is one and with distinction, there are no parts of reality left to develop or change in history. Yet Wilber repeatedly explains “the evolution of consciousness,” while affirming that nonduality is both “the ground and the goal” of the entire process. If nonduality is case, there is no process and there is no goal. Hindu nondualists are at least consistent in rejecting history as illusory and unimportant. Christians, however, believe that God, who transcends the cosmos, nevertheless acts within it to accomplish divine ends throughout history. There is nothing contradictory about these claims, and they may be verified philosophically and historically.

Third, Wilber’s concept of God (which he calls “Spirit” or “Emptiness”) is incoherent because he says it is “unqualifiable”—beyond logical and linguistic description. This idea of ineffability is invoked by many nondualists, since the nondual state cannot be described in language, since language hinges on affirming and negating properties with respect to objects (“The apple is red” or “Jesus is sinless”); language is a dualistic enterprise to the core. If so, Wilber’s “Spirit” cannot serve as an explanation of anything, because its very meaning cannot be picked out of the conceptual crowd. To claim, “An unknowable, ineffable X, explains history and religion” is logically absurd. What does the explaining in any explanation must be intelligible and knowable.
To say that George is suffering from an unknown malady is not to explain that maladies cause, nature, or cure. It explains nothing. On the other hand, Christianity teaches that God is knowable, He is a just, loving, and personal being, who is revealed in nature (Romans 1:19-21), conscience (Romans 2:14-15), Scripture (2 Timothy 3:15-17), and in Jesus Christ, the Incarnation of God (John 1:1-3; 14, 18). As Paul says concerning our knowledge of God, we see in part and we know in part; but we do see and we do know true things about God (1 Corinthians 13:12).

Fourth, Wilber’s denial of a personal God—the “mythic god” of mere anthropomorphism and tribalism—takes away any meaning or significance or reality for human persons. Personhood is not fundamental to Wilber’s Kosmos; it must be transcended through mystical experience. Prayer, worship, and any relationship with God is impossible. In fact, all relationship is ruled out in a nondualistic worldview. One is a very lonely number, after all. On the contrary, biblically, God himself is tri-personal and triune: Father, Son, and Spirit: one God in eternal relationship and fellowship (Matthew 3:13-17; John 1:1-3; 17; 1 Peter 1:1-2). The triune God brings human beings into existence in God’s personal image and likeness in order that they may have communion with him and with each other (Genesis 1:26-27).

Fifth, nondualism excludes the conflict between good and evil, since to admit ethical dualities or polarities is a fundamental lie of “two-ness.” “There is only God,” Wilber affirms. If so, there is no ontological room for evil. But God, for Wilber, is not a good and moral being who creates the cosmos and acts in history. God is only “Emptiness,” which is hardly a moral category (if it is a conceptual category at all). Nonetheless, the properly functioning human conscience recognized the realities of virtue and vice, of heroism and terrorism, of good and evil. Any worldview view that eliminates these distinctions as unreal fails the most basic reality test a worldview can encounter. Moreover, Wilber himself makes moral judgments in his writings when he rejects the monotheistic view of God as primitive and unenlightening and when he condemns the KKK. Wilber also claims that the more developed or evolved an entity is (the more complex its structure of holons is), the more respect it deserves. He calls this principle “the basic moral imperative.” But he has no philosophical basis for affirming any ethical judgments, since such discrimination presupposes the objective reality of various entities possessing value. Nondualism disallows these realities, since only an impersonal God (called “Emptiness”) exists. Christians, however, know the reality of a good world gone wrong through sin against God’s eternally holy character and wise commands. Evil is very real in a sinful and fallen world; but it has been named, unmasked, and defeated through the perfect life, vicarious death, and death-defeating resurrection of Jesus Christ. Evil will finally be overcome through his Second Coming at the end of the age (Matthew 25:31-46; Acts 1:11; Philippians 3:21).

Sixth, Wilber’s nondualistic worldview offers no hope of salvation, either individually or globally. This follows for two reasons. First, Wilber can gives no substantive ethical vision for the individual or society beyond the very general advice to meditate and to think integrally (which excludes monotheism). Moreover, his model of social change is logically incoherent. In an interview in the journal What is Enlightenment? in 2002, Wilber claimed that the goal for those who want to transform society should be to “incarnate nondualism.” The very concept of nondualism eliminates the possibility of incarnation, since incarnation means to bring an objectively real higher reality to bear on an objectively real lower reality. In other words, incarnation logically necessitates a dualism between higher and lower, and thus rules out nondualism as a worldview. However, the Apostle Paul’s words make the concept of incarnation crystal clear: "For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich" (2 Corinthians 8:9; see also Philippians 2:5-11). Having denied the ontological distinction between the Creator and creation (Romans 1:18-32), Wilber can only seek spiritual liberation within the self, which he denies is sinful and which he identifies with an impersonal and pantheistic oneness that does not exist.

Wilber writes little of Jesus Christ in his books, which is a strange omission, given that Jesus has influenced world history more than any other individual. Sadly, Ken Wilber has thus denied the unique deity, cosmic authority, and redemptive power of “the only name under heaven by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). In his attempt to explain everything, Wilber has defined and demeaned the Lord of the cosmos. Therefore, Wilber’s philosophy amounts to a huge superstructure build on nothing more than shifting and sinking sand (Matthew 7:24-27).


1. Groothuis, Douglas. Confronting the New Age. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1988.
2. Sire, James. Scripture Twisting: Twenty Ways Cults Misinterpret the Bible. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1980.
3. Wilber, Ken. A Sociable God. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1983.
4. Wilber, Ken. Sex, Ecology, Spirituality, revised ed. Boulder: Shambhala, 2000.
5. Wilber, Ken. A Brief History of Everything, revised ed. Boulder, CO: Shambhala, 2000.
6. Wilber, Ken. A Brief Theory of Everything. Boulder, CO: Shambhala, 2000.
7. “The Evolution of Enlightenment: Andrew Cohen and Ken Wilber in Dialogue,” What is Enlightenment? Spring/Summer 2002, 38ff.
8. “The Kosmos According to Ken Wilber: A Dialogue with Robin Korman, Shambhala Sun, September, 1996.


Jorgon Gorgon said...

"The most widely accepted cosmologies view the universe as finite, not infinite. Moreover, the well-established Big Bang cosmology tells us that the universe had an absolute beginning in time; therefore, it is not infinite in duration. "

A common enough mistake, assuming that the Big Bang was a beginning of the whole Universe rather than a phase transition from one state to another. That is the most widely-held belief among cosmologists currently, regardless of the fact that there are several competing theories describing the spacetime "before" the Big Bang.

Doug Groothuis said...

See my next post as a response.

Bill Honsberger said...

Excellent review Doug.
I have always thought of Wilbur as the "anti-Shirley Mclaine" in that to read him is to be exposed to a wealth of confusing and incoherent ideas and the thinkers who thought them. While of course Shirley taught that much of her wisdom came channeled through her dog.... But at the end of the day both Ken and Shirley sadly arrive in the same place; there is only one and that one is god! Different paths same destination.
"one is really a lonely number after all" - love the TDN reference (they played at my high school before they got famous!) and this shows the ethical vacuum at the bottom of all non-dual systems. Ethics/morals/principles for living or whatever you call them - all make sense in a context where there is more than one. What does it mean to love someone, or be kind or to take care of the widow and orphan - if there is no one else? The famous "the other" of pomo writings does not exist. Nor did they ever exist - just figments of maya.
Irony again that so called Christians like Rob Bell invoke Wilbur as their guide along the emerging path. Moral and intellectual suicide as the course for the Christian life!!!
As you repeatedly and well pointed out - only a Biblical world view can give - dare I say it - a foundation for science, morality and life itself. That is why Nietzsche and the real pomos - (Barthes, Jameson, Derrida, Foucoult, etc) truly hated the God of the Bible - God must be dead - so we can do what we want. As I mentioned in your previous discussion of Wilbur; it makes perfect sense for Wilbur to endorse Adida - whose perversity is practically legendary. No reality = no perversity. Only One? - no morals even logically possible.
What a fun world we live in!
Blessings on you and Rebecca and thanks for the very commendable review.

Recovering Integral said...


As a student of Wilber's work for the past 12 years, I feel as though your critique of Wilber's integral theory is deeply flawed and shows a lack of understanding of his overall model. My areas of disagreement with your post are too numerous to discuss here, but your summary of Wilber's perspective of Christianity is ignorant of his most recent work on the topic. I suggest taking a look at the text Integral Spirituality as well as his dialogue with Christian monks in order to develop a more comprehensive understanding of his view of Christianity before attempting such a critique.

Doug Groothuis said...


You gave no specifics. Wilber has not changed his stripes. He is a pantheist/perennialist. As such, he must reject Christianity as the ultimate truth.

But I do have his newer little book "Integral Vision," which I shall soon read.

David said...


I agree with the previous poster, especially with the "too numerous to discuss. I'll just mention a couple things however...

1.) Your comments about "changing his stripes" isn't relevent but clearly pejorative.
2.) Your lack of understanding of holographic theory makes the entire "holon" part of your critique meaningless as his arguement actually does not refute itself unless you don't see the larger picture of the discussion.

And lastly and most profound misunderstanding on your part is:

3.) Your assertion "non-duality" somehow refutes these idea makes no sense. That's what a hologram IS.
On these last 2 points look at the human body as an example (indeed a whole, and part of a whole):
Each cell has all the information of the (and each successive) wholes, which include tissue, organ, body. They are separate and not separate depending on how you want to look at it.

There are certainly Christian (mystical) ideas and experiences reported corresponding so these ideas. The "grape vine" analogy as well as teachings about "one body in Christ" come to mind.

David Kincade

Stephen C. Rose said...

I love curmudgeons!

Here we seem to have a division of responses. I found the original post salient although the comments abut Wilber's recent forays into Christianity are are correct. He's been there, But I think he is either playing or tacking things on, which I feel he has always done. The Spectrum of Consciousness was a great eye opener. Since then eyes wide shut or something like that. Curmudgeonly yours. S

David said...


I don't disagree with you, I"m not some big "Wilber fan", I find his work way to verbose to encompass simple truths. That said, my post simply meant to point out that I don't think Doug knows what he's talking about on this topic, whether it's a misunderstanding of Wilber, or some other reason I don't know.


Douglas Groothuis said...


I have read many of Wilber's books and tried to understand his claims. I then logically critique them. I fail to see that I am missing.

Chris said...

Several years ago when I was just a general "non- metaphysical naturalist" agnostic, I came upon Wilber's works. Like so many university "educated" people, I found traditional Western religion untennable- so Wilber's views were very attractive- spirituality strained of superstition, mythology, and dogma.
By exposing the many problems associated with a crass positivism, spirituality was put firmly on the map for me.

With his many references to the Perennial Philosophy, it wasn't long before I discovered the Tradtionalist school. Theses folks do not reject the great religions of the world as somehow less evolved, but affirm them as various "expressions" or "dialects" of the one supreme spiritual Reality.

This position is generally attacked by conservative religious people as yet another false form of the new age. Whereas the progressive spiritualists reject them for being, well, less "evolved" for accepting dogma and mythology.

These critics from both sides argue that the Perennialist view is simply incoherent. One side says Santa Claus, the other says syncretism.

I think Conservative western religious folk, theists that is, ought to visit or re-visit mystical theology and the transpersonal conceptions of the Divine.

On the other hand, I think the spiritual progressives could learn alot by visiting or re-visiting the traditional transcendent personal conception of Divinity. No insides with outsides; no outsides without insides.

Norma said...

Not sure I understood much beyond pantheist. But with a publisher name like Shambhala is think I've got his number.