The Spectrum of Consciousness

Author: Professor Mike Mueckler
Publisher: The Neural Surfer
Publication date: 1996

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Ken Wilber's Spectrum of Consciousness: A Little Misunderstanding Goes a Long Way

A Review By Professor Mike Mueckler

First, I must confess my complete aversion for any book in the "Consciousness", "Psychology", or "New Age" sections of any bookstore. Since that is where Ken Wilber's books are usually found, I have never read anything by him before. I had to literally force myself to purchase, and then to begin reading, "Spectrum of Consciousness", Wilber's initial foray into what has become known as Spectrum Psychology. I say this to warn the reader in advance of my leanings and prejudices. I didn't get very far into the book before my worst fears were realized. Despite my high expectations based on Wilber's fine reputation, "Spectrum of Consciousness" represents a rather simple intellectual rationalization of a religious viewpoint. And, to a reader familiar with science, it does not appear to be a terribly sophisticated or well-justified rationalization.

Chapter 2, which Wilber titles, "Two Modes of Knowing", provides the intellectual foundation for the rest of the book. Because of its importance to his overall thesis, I restrict my comments to this chapter alone. This chapter represents a rather obvious misapplication of science to justify what is simply an a priori assumption: that dualism is a lower level of reality, and therefore only by going beyond symbolic (dualistic) knowledge to a higher level, which Wilber calls intimate or direct knowledge, can we ever know "Reality" itself.

The core of Wilber's argument rests on an apparent misrepresentation or misunderstanding of Quantum Theory. Before I address the misunderstanding itself, one might ask how it arises on Wilber's part. Perhaps it is because he relies extensively on the philosophical treatises of noted quantum physicists, particularly Schroedinger and Heisenberg, and then misinterprets the philosophical views as the science itself. Schroedinger and Heisenberg would have been the first to warn against placing their philosophical opinions on the same footing with their science. Indeed, most physicists ignored these flights of fancy back in the 1920s and 30s when they first began appearing and continue to ignore them today. The great majority of quantum physicists still hold to the Copenhagen Interpretation of Quantum Theory championed by Niels Bohr, a scientist we hear little of from Wilber. According to the Copenhagen Interpretation, there is an absolute and necessary distinction between the observer and the observed, i.e., dualism is an absolute necessity. The importance of this fact will become clear in the context of this critique.

Wilber asserts that quantum theory, specifically the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, proves that the observer and object are one, i.e., that quantum physics abolishes all dualism at the physical level as an illusion of approximation. He provides a quote from Schroedinger to support this notion. He does not tell us in the text that the quote is not from a scientific paper, where such a quote would never appear, but rather from an interesting, but fanciful, philosophical and speculative treatise called "What is Life?". Schroedinger's quote was not meant to be taken as a scientific fact, and Wilber's assertions concerning the implications of Quantum Theory are false.

The Uncertainty Principle simply places limits on the accuracy with which we can simultaneously measure the two complementary dynamic properties of a quantum object, such as an electron. The Uncertainty principle actually applies to any object (even a basketball), but because the level of uncertainty depends on a tiny number called Planck's Constant, for all intents and purposes the uncertainty only applies to very small things like electrons. Wilber implies that the Uncertainty Principle proves that "the subject and object are ultimately one and the same thing." This is a strange assertion indeed. Is a measuring device the same thing as an electron? A measuring device is comprised of electrons, but also of dozens of other fundamental particles that are distinct from electrons, arranged in complex ways. Clearly an electron is not the same thing as a large conglomeration of electrons and nuclei. So that is clearly false.

Perhaps Wilber means that there is a necessary connectedness between the object and the measuring device (why didn't he just say that then?). That is certainly true, but to what extent? Can one justify in any way saying that the object and observer are one and the same thing? The answer is no. According to Quantum Theory, the dynamic properties of an object, like position and momentum, only take on definite values when a device actually takes a measurement on that object. At any other time, one cannot say that a quantum object possesses a discrete position or momentum. Although this implies a connectedness between the observer and object, it does not mean that the object and observer are one and the same thing. Nor does it mean that the object and the observer are linked in some mysterious or supernatural way. What it means is that an observer can choose to measure one dynamic property of an object rather than another one. The connectedness between the object and observer is limited: the observer cannot influence the invariant properties of an object, e.g., the electrical charge on an electron. Yet, Wilber concludes that "Abandoning dualism is exactly what the new physics had done." This leap in logic comes right out of left field and is clearly not supported by Quantum Theory.

Surely, Quantum Theory tells us that reality (not actual "reality", but what we can glean of reality through measurements) depends in part on how we choose to observe or measure it, but what does that have to do with the abandonment of dualism? There are many philosophical interpretations of Quantum Theory, but they all share one thing in common--they are guesses, and they might remain so forever. However, the Copenhagen Interpretation makes a clear qualitative distinction between the observer and the observed. That is, duality is, in fact, reinforced by this most popular interpretation of Quantum Theory, not abolished by it.

Another example of Wilber's misuse of a scientific principle occurs when he implies that the new physics does away with materialism, because, as he puts it "neither could they (physicists) find any material stuff". If there is no material stuff, what is a measuring device detecting and what, in fact, is a measuring device? One thing that every physicist who has ever lived would agree on, is that there is indeed something "out there" that is subject to measurement, and that there are things called measuring devices that can provide information about that something. I am not addressing the issue of materialism versus idealism here, rather, I am simply pointing out what scientists believe, and why Wilber's views are not supported by the science he leans upon.

Wilber also makes the claim that dualism "was found untenable, and found untenable not because of some arbitrary opinion of a particular group of philosophers, but by no less than the authority of physics." As described above, this appears to be a misunderstanding on Wilber's part of the meaning of Quantum Theory, apparently the result of his misinterpreting the philosophical views of physicists as the science itself. Without this scientific legitimacy, the rest of Wilber's assertions take on the air of the simple opinion of a "particular" philosopher, Ken Wilber.

Wilber's next quantum leap in logic occurs when he says: "we have, then available to us two basic modes of knowing, as these physicists discovered, one that has variously been called symbolic, or map, or inferential, or dualistic knowledge; while the other has been called intimate or direct, or non-dual knowledge." Notice the not so subtle way he gives an air of authority to this statement by using the word "physicists" in the declaration, as if there is some objective, scientific basis for this declaration. And what statement by a physicist does Wilber refer to in order to authenticate this assertion? It is Schroedinger: "All of this [Western Philosophy] was said from the point of view that we accept the time-hallowed discrimination between subject and object. Though we have to accept it in everyday life for practical reference, we ought, so *I believe*, to abandon it in *philosophical* thought. (emphasis mine)" Note that Schroedinger clearly states that this is a belief on his part, not a scientific fact, and he proposes to do away with dualism in "philosophical thought", i.e., in the realm of logical argumentation from a priori assumptions. This quote is also from Schroedinger's very thoughtful, but fanciful, "What is Life?". Schroedinger is stating a simple subjective viewpoint like any other human being, and it has nothing to do with physics per se. In fact, both Schroedinger and Heisenberg were very interested in philosophy in general, and Greek and Eastern philosophy in particular.

Wilber, in fact, makes a fatal flaw when he attempts to use the New Physics to rationalize his own a priori beliefs. I have noted above how he uses the philosophical expositions of physicists to authenticate his belief in the existence of a direct mode of knowing, i.e., of directly experiencing reality. But what does the science itself tell us? According to Quantum Theory, it is *impossible* for us ever to directly experience "reality". The best we can do is to describe what we can measure about it, or, as Wilber puts it, to construct maps. Note that this means it is impossible to experience reality *by any and all means*. This is a scientific fact, not a matter that is subject to debate among physicists. In other words, the second mode of knowing that Wilber proposes has been proven by Quantum Theory to be *impossible* because of the very fabric of the Universe.

What I object to so strongly about this book is the subtle manipulation of the reader who is lead to believe that Wilber's mountainous assumptions are backed up by science. Instead of simply stating up front:" Here are my basic assumptions...", Wilber leads the reader to believe that those assumptions are established scientific facts. On the other hand, I would not object at all to Wilber's approach if he simply admitted that he is using the philosophical thoughts of certain scientists to bolster his own subjective viewpoint. But then Wilber would need to make it clear that the philosophical viewpoint of a scientist has nothing to do with science itself and is no more or less valid than the viewpoint of a plumber or secretary. Wilber gets into trouble because he fails to distinguish between the philosophical views of scientists and the science itself.

Sorry, Mr. Wilber, but God does play dice, and that eliminates any possibility of "direct knowing". If this book can be said to represent the starting point for Mr. Wilber's highly developed World View, it would appear that a little misunderstanding can go a very long way, indeed.

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I want to go back to the home base now.