Author: David Christopher Lane Publisher: MSAC Philosophy Group Publication date: 1996
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KEN WILBER'S ACHILLES' HEEL The Art of Spiritual Hyperbole [A Ten Part Series] Prologue: Aaron Talsky, the Harvard Lawyer, the Intellectual Pit-Bull, Is Let Off the Leash At a Transpersonal Pizza Party. ------------------------------------------------------------------- NOTE to the READER: First of all, this ten-part series is designed to point out the fundamental weaknesses that I see in Ken Wilber's work and, to some degree, in the whole transpersonal psychology movement. However, I should state right from the outset that I have tremendous respect for Ken Wilber and his books. I have used Wilber's ideas since I first started teaching in 1979. In almost all of my philosophy and religious studies classes (from high school to college to graduate studies) Ken Wilber's spectrum psychology has been instrumental. In the late 1980s I even taught two or three graduate level courses devoted entirely to Wilberian thought. At MSAC this past year we have read Sex, Spirituality, and Ecology and a Brief History of Everything in my Introduction to Philosophy and Introduction to Major World Religions classes. I pride myself on having read almost everything Wilber has ever publicly published. Moreover, my critique of Wilber can also be applied with double force to many of my early writings. What I accuse Wilber of--gross, or should I say spiritual?, exaggeration--is precisely what I have been (perhaps still am) guilty of. Quite simply, it is the tendency to "inflate", to "exaggerate", to "hype" those things which are not yet knowable. It is, in sum, the inclination to indulge in spiritual hyperbole, gross exaggerations that do not (perhaps cannot) convey the precision necessary for the progression of transpersonal psychology as a science. Wilber exaggerates and he exaggerates way too much, especially on matters of ultimate importance. I don't think he does it intentionally (I am not accusing Wilber of dishonesty), but I do think it fundamentally taints his work to such an extent that most reductionistic scientists--a phrase I use approvingly--cannot distinguish Wilberian gems from Wilberian rubbish. I write this critique not so much to "dis" Wilber (I will always eagerly await any new tome from his pen), but to rather frame what I think limits the import of his research on the harder sciences. On a more personal note, I think Ken Wilber is a delightful fellow. He is, unquestionably, one very bright guy and I consider myself fortunate to have had the pleasure of dining with him (and his beautiful late wife, Treya). I also want to underline that my criticisms of his work can also be applied to much of my writing and perhaps to many of the writers in the Transpersonal Movement. ------------------------------------------------------------------- Prologue This past year I was invited by Dr. Anthony Kassir, who had recently graduated from Medical School at U.C. Irvine, to an informal gathering of would-be doctors of psychiatry who were going to an Italian restaurant in Newport Beach to talk with Dr. Roger Walsh, the well-known transpersonal therapist and author. Dr. Kassir knew of my interest in Wilber and thought that Dr. Walsh and I should meet. Naturally, I was happy to go. I also thought it would be fruitful if I brought my best friend, Aaron Talsky (a Harvard educated lawyer and an expert on Indian spirituality), along with me. I should have known better, of course. Aaron Talsky is one helluva of nice guy when you get to know him, but he is, to put this politely, an intellectual pit-bull. He's very smart, but he can also be very acidic. Since we are pals, I told him that I was going to put a "leash" on him for the night. Basically, I was bribing him into a free meal at my expense because Aaron needs to get out at night and away from his Haiku dog, Master Basho. It was a pleasant evening and the conversation was at first polite. Everything seemed to have a warm goo to it, and I could just tell that it was not going to last. There were too many uninspected statements, too many miracle claims, too much optimism about what transpersonal psychology will achieve. Aaron was sitting right next to Dr. Roger Walsh. Talsky was biting his tongue, holding his hurl, the entire time..... until I slightly winked at him (forgetting that a wink to Aaron can also be interpreted as "you are off the leash!"). No sooner had I given Talsky the nod than a full-fledged debate began to rage. Aaron Talsky was like the proverbial bull in a china shop, breaking apart the most delicate of items. Yet, as I watched him unleash his exceedingly keen intellect like a laser-sharpened Ninja blade, it became painfully obvious that nobody in the room could counter-argue Talsky's devastatingly simple points. For example, when Talsky talked about brain lesions and how certain patients literally experience non-connecting selves--each one unknown to the other--he raised the issue of a "soul" or "self." In such cases, what sense does it make to talk about a permanent self or soul? Moreover, why do we think that we survive death, when in actual experience we cannot even remember deep sleep (those moments in which we don't even dream). And what, truly, is modifying the play of consciousness? The Neural symphony or some divine symphony for which we have no proof, but a lot of stories, which depend by the way on the activity of neurons. No neural activity, no stories--no religion, no spirituality, no myths, no nothing (at least in terms of what one could talk about at Dominos). Then Aaron raised the issue of silicon chips replacing "wet" neurons... or the transplanting of one's brain into another person's body. Does the soul stay or move or translate or pay rent or what? Or does it make any sense to talk about a "soul" when such a term is as outdated as Zeus or Thor or any God which we used to think controlled some vital organ or substance of the body or the world....? Naturally, there are many ways to approach these questions and they have been with us since time immemorial..... But I tell you something.... at this party it deadened the "spirit." It grounded the flights of fancy. It made everybody look like a bad poser.... We all started sounding stupid, sounding inarticulate. Why? Because we really don't know much and even the best of minds are stuck when confronted with simple little questions.... and it is the simplest of questions that can derail transpersonal psychology much too quickly. Put it this way, some of the best emerging minds in transpersonal psychology were in attendance, and not one of them could answer Talsky's questions in a satisfactory way. Quite frankly, it was pathetic. And Talsky is not even that well informed on the latest issues. He just had the balls to ask impolite questions at a polite pizza party. It got me to thinking. Thus my critique of Wilber, which has been in the back of my mind for years....... Let's start with DA.... ADI DA, that is. [End Prologue]
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