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Interview

Anthropology, Consciousness, and Spirituality:


A Conversation with Ken Wilber
Grant Jewell Rich
Pettengill Hall
Bates College
4 Andrews Rd.
Lewiston, ME 04240
optimalex@aol com

Abstract
This is an interview with author Ken Wilber, whose work on consciousness over
the last twenty-five years has been tremendously influential. His work blends
"Eastern" and "Western" approaches and has influenced scholars in psychology,
philosophy, and religion, as well as in anthropology. His work on transpersonal
psychology is especially well-known, and his first book, The Spectrum ofConsciousness,
arguably marks the beginning of transpersonal studies. Frances Vaughan has referred
to Wilber's work as the "work of genius." Daniel Goleman once listed Wilber among
the "ranks of the grand theorists of human consciousness" including "Ernst Cassirer,
Mircea Eliade, and Gregory Bateson." Wilber discusses the scope of the consciousness
problem as well as contributions to the field that anthropologists might be well suited
to make. Key words: consciousness, theory, interview, relativism.

Rich: You've written volumes on the theme of consciousness. For example in your
books Integral Psychology and Theory of Everything you develop comprehensive
models of consciousness that seek to integrate Eastern and Western ways of thinking,
ancient and modern models of thought, and you've examined consciousness at every
level from the atomic to the psychological to the sociological to the spiritual. First
off, how do you define the scope of consciousness?
Wilber: It's one of those interesting things consciousness, because an aspect of it is
first person, so it's something you can't really describe or define very well. Because
part of it is experiential it's like saying how would you define a sunset, or how do you
define a tasty piece of apple pie, or how do you define making love and so on. I think
it's one of the difficulties of the field in that we want to, on the one hand, try to be
fairly scientific about our approach to consciousness, and science tends to study
things which are merely objects: rocks, trees, ecosystems, and so on. So it can give
you pretty good objective definitions of objects, but when a part of what you're
studying is subjective, then it gets a little slipperier, and that is certainly the case with
consciousness. If you look back at the traditions, on the one hand, and by traditions
I mean the great wisdom traditions or the spiritual traditions, on the one hand
consciousness is part of our own individuality. But most of the traditions maintain
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44 Anthropobgy of Consciousness 112(2)]

that consciousness has a component that runs right into spirit and spirit itself being
all transcending, all encompassing, is itself unqualifiable. Ultimately you can't really
define it. You can't define that which is common to all things or the ground of all
things. So, it's kind of a long-winded way of saying that a good deal of consciousness
is hard to define. Rather like pornography, [laughing] you know it when you see it,
or in this case feel it, I suppose, and that's what we're doing. We can study an awful
lot through the aspects of consciousness. We can look at levels of consciousness or
waves of consciousness, or developmental lines of consciousness. So we go at it that
way, by coming up with this large catalog of all the various types and modes and
aspects of consciousness.
Rich: You're well known for stage levels and stage theories of consciousness. How
do you define a stage?
Wilber: That's another area that it is problematic. On the one hand, it's true that
I do study some of the stages of consciousness but I don't think all aspects of
consciousness exist in stages. The model that I often present is sometimes summarized
as "all quadrants, all levels, all lines, and all states." We can talk about what these
mean if you want, but the general idea is that one of those four has to do with levels
of consciousness or stages of consciousness. This is based not on theoretical issues
so much as it is based on empirical research. I'm particularly thinking about the
number of developmental psychologists studying aspects of developmental psychology
including cognitive development, moral development, linguistic development, and
so on. So, any integral theory of consciousness wants to at least look at the evidence
for stages and then try to see if there isn't some sort of felicitous way you can fit stage
conceptions into an overall model. Then you immediately run into criticisms of
stage conceptions particularly by the relativistic pluralists who don't believe in the
idea.
Rich: Might there be a different pace, order, or endpoint for the stages in different
cultures or in different periods of history ? Often scholars note problems or limitations
with stage theories. Kubler-Ross did wonderful work on the stages of dying [denial,
anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance]- but recent evidence suggests people go
through the stages in a variety of orders and sometimes at the same time. Another
example would be Kohlberg's work on moral development—in the US there is some
evidence that many people do proceed through the stages as he describes—however,
evidence from other cultures suggests that there are different criteria for moral
behavior, and that a person viewed as moral in a certain culture may not necessarily
score high on Kohlberg's stages.
Wilber: Well, what we're looking at here, again it depends on what you mean by
a stage and how specific or narrow you try to define that. On the one hand, if you
back up very very far, and define a stage in an extremely broad conception, very few
people would disagree. For example in the human mind, we have images, we have
symbols, we have concepts, and we have rules. Those are very general types of
cognitive capacities. All cultures seem to have the capacity to form images, symbols,
concepts and rules. The exact nature of them differs from culture to culture but the
capacity itself, as far as we can tell, is present in all known cultures. Moreover, those
Sep/Dec 2001 A Conversation with Ken Wilber 45

four entities that I just listed do emerge in a sequence that cannot be changed by
social conditioning, so nobody has found rules emerging before images, ever. So,
some stage conceptions in fact are uncontested and thats important to realize.
Usually, the pluralistic relativists want to come in and say all stage conception is
relative and thats simply factually incorrect. So, the question becomes, stages do
exist, we need to look very carefully at whether the stages we're looking at exist in
a single individual, in a single community, in a single culture, in several cultures, or
whether the stages are universal. I think a much more balanced approach to stage
conception is to say: we have evidence for stages in all those categories. Some stages,
like Kohlbergs, might be confined to particular cultures. Other stages, such as the
ones I gave in cognitive development are universal. So, if you go through and try to
map all of the various stage conceptions, then you can get a better idea about which
ones are cross-cultural, and which ones are more isolated. But taking either extreme
and saying there are no stages, period, or taking the other sort of Piagetian extreme,
and saying everybody goes through the same stages—1 think both of those are
incorrect.
Rich: Can you give an example of a theory where a person, in a particular stage
model, might skip stages or go backwards? You gave the example of the Piagetian
cognitive development theory, its a theory where a person typically does not skip
stages or go backwards, but then you also alluded to the fact that there might be stage
models for which that is not the case.
Wilber: Yes, it s a very broad conception of the general stage approach. What we're
trying to look M is just very simply taken from the model of growth systems in all of
nature. Virtually every organic system we're aware of has aspects that undergo
development, and these developments tend to appear, they're not rigid clunky sorts
Anthropology of Consciousness [12(2)]

of affairs, they tend to appear in stable patterns of unfolding. Whether you're looking
at an acorn growing into an oak, or even stellar systems, stellar evolution and stellar
development. In animal forms, you see basically stages of unfolding. So the idea is,
aren't some aspects, not all aspects, but some aspects of the human being also organic
and developmental? The answer appears to be yes, but beyond that again, you have
to go down and look at the various types of stages, see what empirical evidence there
is for them. Some things called stages appear merely to be cultural learning
mechanisms. The question again is in a real stage sequence certain requirements
have to be met. For example, atoms to molecules to cells to organisms, that's a true
stage conception in that none of those stages can be skipped. Nobody has ever gone
from atoms to cells and skipped molecules, nor can those stages be reversed, nor can
they emerge in an order that can be altered by environmental conditioning. So that's
kind of a primal example of stage conception, and there are certain types of
fundamentals in the human psyche that are very broad but that emerge into those
same types of sequences, because each stage is built of the components of its
predecessors, like images, symbols, concepts and rules. Other things called stage
conceptions don't hold up with that kind of rigor. What I appreciate about the
relativists is their concern that a particular ethnocentric stage conception might be
used as a model against which other cultures would be judged to be inferior, and
nobody wants to do that, and I certainly agree with that. But in their zeal to protect
other cultures, shall we say, I think they've thrown their baby out with the bath water.
A lot of important broad developmental ways of consciousness do appear to be cross-
cultural and far from forming a kind of judgementalism that ranks other cultures
inferior, it actually is a way to find certain common elements across cultures that bind
people together. As for uneven development, that's a very complex issue, but I
present a summary of it in Integra/ Psychology.
Rich: In the past few decades, and you've alluded to this, there has been much talk
about cultural relativism and postmodernism. Are there limits to this approach to
the world?
Wilber: Which approach?
Rich: We can take cultural relativism first.
Wilber: I think part of the difficulty is that in order to maintain the stance of cultural
relativism, you have to use certain criteria that you are implicitly claiming are not
relative. This is the so-called performative contradiction. The idea is that, for
example, the cultural relativists are making a series of very strong claims that they
claim are true for all cultures. For example, they claim that truth is imbedded, that
there are no context-free truth claims, that there are therefore no universal truth
claims, and yet all of those claims contradict their own premises. So, in order to
consistently maintain relativism, you have to set up a language and a meta-language.
For your meta-language, you claim universal validity, and for everybody else's, you
claim it's culturally bound. That's a performative contradiction. Philosophically, I
think the cultural relativists have been handed a series of very, very strong defeats at
the hands of people like Jurgen Habermas and Charles Taylor and John Searle and
several others. All those theorists are quick to point out that a great deal of cultural
Sep/Dec 2001 A Conversation with Ken Wilber 47

knowledge is in fact context bound, relative, pluralistic and so on. But certain aspects
of cultures and certain truth claims about cultures themselves transcend cultures.
We have to be honest about both sides of those, and I think find a better mixture
between a pure universalism on the one hand which is pretty discredited, and a pure
relativism on the other hand which is also discredited, and a kind of universal
pluralism or a relativism set in the context of certain universal truth claims seems to
be the only really balanced way to approach it.
Rich: Well, in one view, I guess if you were a radical cultural relativist you could argue
that a really, really bad guy, like Hitler, for instance, trom the vantage point of his own
cultural world view and his own cultural setting, could be considered to be doing a
moral justice in the world. Hitler believed he was improving the world, as awful as
that seems to others. To take another example, recently in psychology there has been
much activity in the field of so-called "positive psychology" - the study of happiness,
wisdom, health, creativity, human decency and so on. Do you think there is a danger
in such a movement of limiting our notion of the good life to what a few dozen US
academic psychologists [studying almost exclusively middle-class US college students]
view as the good life?
Wilber: That's certainly one of the big problems, and one of the things that I've tried
to do in my own work is to avoid as much of that as possible. In other words, to avoid
a certain provincialism masquerading as universal good is to first try to do as complete
a mapping of consciousness states as possible. One might do this, in other words, by
looking at all the cultures that we have some sort of knowledge about, and looking
at the states of consciousness that they would report as best we can possibly
understand them. Obviously to some degree we're outsiders, and we try to take up
a stance of sympathetic hermeneutic understanding, and we map out these hundreds
and hundreds of possible psychological, spiritual consciousness states, and from that
we develop a very broad cartography. Of course it will never be complete, though you
try to make it as complete as you can. From that broad cartography of consciousness,
you can then stand back and say okay, here are dozens of things that men and women
over the centuries have considered good, or the good life. So if I'm going to come
in and say happiness consists of, or wisdom consists of, a, b, or c, then I at least better
have this whole cartography in mind, because I might be excluding something very,
very important. So, we may look at this broad cartography, and then try to say, here
are certain common elements that many cultures seem to really value, and ask, 'do
we have access to those states of consciousness in our own culture, and if not, why
not'? If certain academic psychologists are going around saying this is positive
psychology i/you agree with what makes me happy [laughing], then we can go, okay,
that's a big problem!

Rich: Right. What in your theory then, and you've written about this to some
extent, what is the ultimate state of consciousness? Is this the same thing for all
people, in all places, in all historical epochs?
Wilber: It's certainly not the same for all people in all places at all times. It's not even
really the same for a few people in a few places in a few times. But what you do have,
let me put it this way, if you map out all those states of consciousness as I describe to
Anthropology of Consciousness 112(2)]

the best of your ability, and then you look at sort of this overall map of possible
consciousness states that men and women have reported, and you just take it as a
phenomenology, you don't take it as, it has to be empirically true, then certain
patterns suggest themselves about these states of consciousness and certain values
tend to suggest themselves about those states of consciousness. I'll give you one
example, If you look at certain aspects of consciousness that do tend to undergo
development, not in rigid linear clunk-and-grind stages, but more sort of fluid and
flowing waves of unfolding, again more like an acorn unfolds into an oak, a general
way to summarize it is that it seems to be in part an expansion of identity with higher
stages of development. One way of summarizing it is to say that consciousness seems
to expand from egocentric to ethnocentric to worldcentric modes. Egocentric means
just that, basically my consciousness is described, and my world is described, in first
person terms. I'm not aware, I can't take the role of other, I'm not aware of other's
selves outside of my own egoic dispositions. That seems to expand into an
understanding that there are other selves, so I move from egocentric to sociocentric
or ethnocentric. If development continues I can understand that there's just not my
group or my tribe, or my country right or wrong, there are other countries other tribes,
other peoples, other sentient beings for that matter, and I expand my identity from
identifying with just my tribe, or just my nation or just my group, to a sympathetic
understanding or identity with other human beings. Then I attempt to treat other
human beings with certain fairness or decency or even a quality or certain honoring
of other human beings regardless of race, color, creed, and disposition. There's
nothing in those states themselves that necessarily says that one is better than the
others, but if you look at cultures that have access to all three of those, and you look
at the people that are generally considered to be the wise women and wise men of
those cultures, they tend to value worldcentric over ethnocentric, and they value
ethnocentric over egocentric. That to me suggests that there are certain types of
values that can be read off of this large cartography of consciousness. Again, we have
to be very careful not to be provincial or to give a very narrow definition. Stage
conceptions work universally only if they're given in these very broad brush strokes
and that makes some people uncomfortable because they want to give a very precise
narrow definition of a stage and I don't think that's possible. I think that just doesn't
work very well. Of the very meticulous description of stages from Piaget's to
Kohlberg's, on the meticulous aspects of their descriptions, those don't tend to hold
up very well. But the broad aspects they're talking about, there does seem to be cross-
cultural validity in some of the things that they're trying to get across.
Rich: Certainly your theory is so broad and encompassing, with "Eastern" and
"Western" and historical and modern perspectives and so on and so forth, that to pick
out a little inaccuracy here and there does a disservice to the whole enterprise and
really isn't fair, in my view, but if you were to talk about, say, about the egocentric level
of self certainly that's something that varies cross-culturally, the conception of self.
In fact some cultures will argue, and some religions will argue, that the notion of self
is different than the "mainstream" US self. Could you address that issue a little bit
perhaps, like the Buddhist conception of self or, the self-concept or the lack of self-
concept in some Asian cultures?
Sep/Dec 2001 A Conversation with Ken Wither 49

Wilber: There tends to be two different ways that you can approach that because
there are at least two very different definitions of self or ego or what those terms mean.
It's on the one hand, a culturally specific definition as you suggest, mainly that what
many Westerners mean by a self or an ego is the product of basically the Western
enlightenment and it's sort of analytic distancing. The favorite dirty word of the last
two decades is Cartesian and that sort of dualistic Cartesian disembodied self is what
nonetheless many modern Western philosophers mean by the self and that certainly
is not present in other cultures [laughing] fortunately, although there are aspects
about it that are probably positive. It's not just a bad thing. The notion of Western
enlightenment casting nothing but a mass of crippling errors is silly I think. It had
positives and it had negatives. One of the positives is that it evolved a conception
of worldcentric or universal fairness regardless of race, color, sex, or creed. The down
side is that the differentiation went into dissociation and we have sort of the mind
body problem and the downside to Cartesian philosophy. That self is not what I mean
when I talk about evolution going from self-centric to ethnocentric to worldcentric.
That's very specific culturally, a specific kind of self. Another difficulty is that if you
look at any of the developmental sequences as they occur in East or West, there is
another way to talk about these three broad stages, the use of the terms pre-
conventional, conventional, and post-conventional. Although those terms were
sometimes used by Kohlberg, they really go back to James Mark Baldwin and some
of the first great evolutionary theorists of consciousness. In a sense it just states
essentially that a child is born, has not yet been socialized or acculturated and is
therefore by definition pre-conventional. At some point the child learns, or there
emerges in the child's psyche, or it socially mimics, whatever theory you wish, it
internalizes its cultural ethics, morals, background, knowledge, and becomes
conventional, and by definition ethnocentric, meaning bound to its own cultural
way of looking at things. If development continues, East or West, a capacity to some
degree to distance oneself from a culture and to norm the norm or develop some
capacity for critical self-reflection tends to arrive again in the East and the West. The
Buddhists take that to its ultimate conclusion, because each stage of consciousness
unfolding is a lessening of egocentrism, meaning you can take more and more
perspectives, the more consciousness evolves and unfolds. So another way to
describe those three stages again is to say, first person, second person, and third person
perspectives are understood, and what the Buddhists in a sense do, is they add a fourth
stage to that. Once you've developed a normal adult ego, which in Buddhism means
a center of self that organizes the relative stream of consciousness, once that's
developed you can actually transcend it in what could be called post-worldcentric,
or the fourth major wave of development, that according to Buddhism finally and
once and for all transcends any egoic partiality or narrowness, or any identification
with the personal body-mind, so in a sense, the Buddhist notion of selflessness or
egolessness still presupposes the development of an ego. They have a very specific
cartography of that development. They just don't stop with the Western Cartesian
ego. The Buddhist philosophers take it to the next stage, which transcends even that.

Rich: Let's talk about stage development and evolution and regression, using
creativity as an example. There are some Freudian theories of creativity that suggest
that eminent creators may regress to earlier stages of development, have insights in
Anthropology of Consciousness [12(2)J

this child-like state, and then come back to a mature level of ego development to edit
and revise their creative products. I guess another, different model of creativity would
say you would jump up from your typical level of ego development to a higher level
of consciousness, maybe to a post-conventional or post-worldcentric level, and then
come back down to the ego plane to edit and revise.
Wilber: They're not necessarily mutually exclusive, which is why I try to stress that
even if we talk about developmental stages in terms of broad waves of consciousness
unfolding, that doesn't mean that everything that's going on in childhood is only a
lower level so to speak. What it simply says is when we do recognize a developmental
sequence, development generally means unfolding of deeper wider more complex
and sophisticated organizations. In that sense, earlier stages of development tend to
lack certain of the higher capacities that senior stages have. It doesn't mean they're
unimportant. It doesn't mean they don't have their own function. But the other
point is that there could be also other things going on in childhood, and I'll give you
just a very quick example. We've been talking about broad stages, three or four waves
of consciousness that many cultures East and West fully recognize. But in addition
to stages, there's that other item I mentioned when I said all quadrants, all waves, all
streams, and all states, and that's the fourth one, all states. Because while the stages
of consciousness tend to unfold in a given pattern, in a given sequence, states of
consciousness don't, and both of them are important and both of them have a very
strong role to play in human experience, in particular human spiritual experiences.
All human beings are given at least three major states of consciousness and we're all
familiar with those, waking, dreaming and deep sleep. According to Vedanta
Hinduism, Mahayana Buddhism, and many of the neo-Platonic sects in the West,
these three broad realms correspond basically to what would be called matter, mind,
and spirit. Again, it's not to say they're separate, or they're radically distinct, but just
that these are access to deeper states of consciousness. The fact is infants, and all
human beings wake, dream and sleep, so according to this theory, all human beings
have some sort of access to the material realm, to the mental or soul realm, and the
spirit realm, because all humans wake, dream and sleep. So you can have an altered
state or peak experience of these gross, subtle or causal states at any stage of
development, and that's where it gets interesting I think. Well to finish the first
point, a child generally does have a little bit more playful access to the dream realm,
although the child will interpret that playfulness through the stage which the child
is at, mainly egocentric, pre-conventional, and narcissistic. That's why no matter
how playful and "creative" a child can be, a three year old child still cannot take the
role of other and so won't have a developed sense of, for example, compassion or
mutual love. Of course, it can in some sense love its parents and love its friends and
so on, but it can't take the role of other. It can't really understand the other person's
perceptions from within. Therefore, you can't really have fully developed love or
compassion. So, by saying that we have both states and stages, I think we can take
sort of the best of both of these models, and by putting them together start to get a
little comprehensive overview of what's possible. One of the first things you can do
is actually create a grid of various types of spiritual experiences that are possible by
realizing that a person at a pre-conventional wave of development, at the conventional
wave, at the post-conventional wave, and at the, let's just call it transcendent wave
Scp/Dcc 2001 A Conversation with Ken Wilber 51

for the moment» that a person in any of those four stages or waves can have an
experience of grdss waking, subtle dreaming, or causal formlessness of deep sleep. So,
that little simple £rid right there gives us twelve types of spiritual experiences. There
are abundant tofefens of those twelve types that you can find in a large number of
cultures. I won't say all cultures because when we push back two hundred thousand
years or so things start to get very dim. At that point you just have to be more cautious
about what you say. But certainly in the past twenty thousand years or so, there are
cultures that tend to have access to most of those types, those twelve types that I
describe.
Rich: In your writing, you allude to the ability of a person at a given stage to pop up
to another stage occasionally. You discuss the idea that people can have peak
experiences or flow experiences at each stage. This idea is relatively unique to you,
I think. Could you expand on that idea?
Wilber: The general notion is that if we're talking about a stage conception in the
strict sense, you can't peak experience a higher stage. For example, in the Piaget,
cognitive line, a person in preoperational cannot have a peak experience at the
formal operational. It would be like saying an atom has a peak experience of a cell.
Each higher stage in a true stage sequence is made of its previous stages. That's why
we can't skip real stages and this led to difficulty because it was pretty obvious that
if you look at some of the early and primal cultures, that certain of the shamans, for
example, were clearly having some very high states of consciousness even though the
cultures themselves might not be at a very high stage of cultural interaction. This
led to a series of very intense debates because the pluralists in this case rightly I think
wanted to say you can't judge these cultures as inferior, that's just not fair, and it's
ethnocentric and it sucks. You had some very high states going on, and particularly
in the shamanic states, these are very subtle and occasionally causal states of
consciousness. How dare you say that they're inferior? Other people like Jurgen
Habermas would come along and say, all that might be so, but if you actually look at
the legal modes of interaction at kinship and kinship lineage modes of interaction,
many of these cultures are clearly at the pre-conventional to conventional stage of
unfolding and by an intrinsic developmental logic, that's not being forced upon them
by Westerners. The only way I think you can combine both of those, because I think
both of them are true, is not pick one of them and throw the other one out, but to
realize that anybody and any culture at any given stage of development can have
access to these altered states. So that allows very, very profound peak experiences to
occur literally at any wave of unfolding. So in a sense, the best of all possible worlds,
would be cultures that make available as many stages of growth as possible and also
sanction as many states of consciousness as possible. It might be under a certain, how
shall I say, bounded circumstances. For example, we can't have everyone running
through the streets having mystical experiences twenty-four hours a day. Obviously
that's not going to work, but within reasonable limits, an "ideal" culture would want
to have full access to stages of consciousness and full access to states of consciousness.
What I find happens a lot with some of the primal and original cultures is that they
had wonderful access to many states of consciousness but not very good access on
stages. The modern world at least in its legal and political institutions has moved
52 Anthropology of Consciousness [12(2)]

from ethnocentric to worldcentric. The Western enlightenment ended slavery,


introduced feminism, and did introduce rights that eventually extended to slaves,
women, children and even animals on occasion. So the Western world has done
relatively well on helping us get a few more developed stages, but in the process the
down side is that it threw out many states of consciousness that it judged to be pre-
modern, which for it meant pre-rational, which for it meant childish, infantile and
stupid. That's one of the main problems in my view with the limitations of Western
culture. The problem is not that it developed into a worldcentric stage with the
enlightenment, which it did, in many ways it was good, it's that it threw out many
of these altered states, number one, and therefore number two, the Western
enlightenment didn't realize that there were yet higher stages of consciousness
development which would take it into the transcendent or transpersonal, as a
permanent adaptation and not merely as a passing state. That would be what the
Buddhists do for example, that is that they tear into that fourth or transcendental
stage.
Rich: Do you think we could legally mandate or legally prescribe cultural conditions
which might promote ultimate states of consciousness or is that again something
that's a dangerous path to go down?
Wilber: It's probably a dangerous path to go down. It appears that almost the only
thing that you can do, under these circumstances, is advocacy and to the degree that
you can, education. I've sort of been struck time and time again by that fact that when
it comes to these higher stages of consciousness development which are transrational,
transpersonal, transcendent, and spiritual, and certain states of consciousness which
also have a spiritual feeling to them, that people that have had these experiences are
very comfortable with them because they've seen what they're like, they know that
they're real, they know that they're conveying some sort of profound information.
Maybe they don't interpret it too well, and it comes out looking a little silly on
occasion, or maybe they interpret it in very profound philosophical ways. The fact
is purely that they've had the experiences or they haven't. Those that haven't, there's
almost nothing you can say that will convince them of the legitimacy or authenticity
of higher stages and of certain altered states. And mandating them or legislating
them, I don't think would work, but in the mean time we could just simply say here's
a broad cartography of what men and women have experienced cross culturally over
the ages, and you know [laughing] where are you on this map, how many of these have
you experienced ? How many would you like to experience? How many of these would
you like to outlaw? [both laugh]

Rich: Exactly. Well, let's see, you remind me now of Sigmund Freud's book Future
of Illusion in which Freud is just adamant that he can't discover spiritual or 'oceanic'
feelings within himself, no matter what he reads or who talks to him. He's just
convinced that anyone who believes in higher powers or spiritual things is cognitively
and emotionally immature. And this leads me to the question that many times it
appears, and you've written about this, that people confuse pre-conventional and
post-conventional types of experiences and this idea that perhaps that some people
haven't had peak or transcendent experiences. Of course, one option would be to
Sep/Dec 2001 A Conversation with Ken Wilber 53

send them to a weekend seminar on consciousness or what not and see if they have
a peak or spiritual experience. Can we help people along their way to higher states
of consciousness or is that a lost cause?
Wilber: It's certainly not a lost cause, and I think what happens if you look at cultures
around the world, is two things stand out. One is that with very few exceptions most
cultures that we're aware of have some access to altered states and higher stages of
consciousness. Two, the number of people who actually experience these higher
stages is really rare. I tend to find that people who overlook either one of those tend
to draw some, I think, unfounded conclusions about what was going on in the past
and what's going on today. A lot of writers talk as if fifty thousand years ago every
human being alive was a shaman and was immersed in non-dissociated consciousness
and was enlightened and one with everything that was arising and I don't think so.
Rich: "Ancient good, modern bad," that's how I summarize that view [laughing].
Wilber: [laughing] and then every modem person you know, is cut off from anything
resembling spirituality, is a dry, desiccated, Cartesian hack, and I don't think that's
true either. But the fact is the number of people in any culture, including Buddhist
cultures that have pursued higher stages and higher states, is very small. I would say
easily less than a tenth of one percent of the population at any given time. Possibly
not for tribal cultures because usually there are only forty people within a tribe. The
ecological carrying capacities of most primal tribes is forty to sixty people, and maybe
one was a shaman and maybe one of ten shamans was any good. So it's a very rare
pursuit. What I find a little bit encouraging is that particularly within the baby boom
generation and with a whole lot of people that did inhale, that they got some sense
of something else going on so that gave them at least fresher eyes to re-examine other
cultures for any hidden treasures or higher states or stages that might be available to
men and women here and now. And I think that's actually pretty good. Look at the
number of people in this country, America, that are at least theoretically studying
some of these issues—it's actually you know, it's getting up there. It's still small, it's
still less than one percent, but relatively speaking there's a certain resurgence of
interest in this and I think all we can continue to do is good scholarship on the one
hand, pointing things out. I think that research into both stages and states also helps.
It's not accidental, I don't think, in this country virtually every single stage theorist
has looked at however many stages they present, you know four, five, six, eight,
whatever, and they've all said what if there's a ninth stage? Because that's exactly
right, you know [laughing], why stop at eight? Lawrence Kohlberg postulated stage
seven, which is universal spiritual experience. Jane Loevinger's theory had eight
stages or so, and her main student, Suzanne Cook-Greuter has continued to refine
Jane Loevinger's highest stage, which she called integrated, and Suzanne Cook-
Greuter has found two or three substages in that one. Then again note the highest
of those is a unative mystical experience. Those kinds of things tend to carry a little
bit of weight because they're based on empirical research, with very careful, very
sober scholars, and there's a certain intrinsic logic to the unfolding of these higher
waves. And so that tends to help on the one hand. On the other hand the simple
cataloging of states of consciousness that are possible and then asking the embarrassing
Anthropology of Consciousness 112(2)]

question why out of a hundred, let's say, does this culture sanction four? What's that
all about? And these kinds of things slowly eat away at the common conception that
there are only three or four states ofconsciousness. Most altered states of consciousness
are bad and bad for you [laughing] and that the real state of consciousness is more or
less what the world looks like on a bleak Monday morning as you're driving to work.
Anything other than that is not allowed [laughing].
Rich: Right [laughing]. The depressing view. You were talking about the rarity of
spiritual and transcendent experiences, particularly at the very high levels.
Wilber: Let me just qualify that briefly. Everybody has a fleeting experience or so.
What I was saying more is the people that really pursue it to reach those higher stages
is a permanent accomplishment or permanent adaptation. That's always usually less
than one percent of the population.
Rich: Okay. The developmentalist Bernice Neugarten studied middle age and
talked about the notion of on-time vs. off-time development. For instance, in the
US in the 1950s completing one's education in one's twenties, getting married and
starting a career next, and beginning a family by one's late twenties, was the norm,
in Neugarten's terms, on time. On-time development ruffles few feathers. Cultural
leaders or innovators, including great religious leaders and creative people, in my
view, often exhibit off-time development. They are avant-garde, and before their
time, or at least not in sync with their time and place. A person who is a shaman who
is at one of these higher stages of consciousness or higher levels of consciousness
while his or her peers might not be may face certain obstacles and pressures.
Wilber: Historically it has been pretty unpleasant [laughing]. I think Peter Berger
did a wonderful series of studies on what he termed nihilation and therapia and you sort
of see it in most cultures. There is a conventional background series of beliefs, norms,
rules of behavior, and so on and if you deviate from those, a whole series of forces
swing into play to help straighten you out, and this is not necessarily a bad thing, not
in all ways. I think a lot of us Boomers brought up in the sixties, we want nothing
but freedom and anything that ties us down ought to be deconstructed. The fact is
that societies do have to survive, and they do have to form some sort of cultural
bonding, some degree of cohesion as a group and as a group consciousness in order
to survive. And when somebody breaks that law then they're outlawed, and Berger
referred to that as nihilation because it threatens the death of the culture. The outlaw
threatens the culture's cohesion. So, culture will come up one way or the other with
therapy, therapia that will help straighten the poor outlaw out. I've suggested just in
keeping with those aspects ofconsciousness that are developmental, that the way you
want to refine that theory is to point out that there is not really an outlaw. There's
something you might call pre-law and post-law or translaw, and in a certain sense the
idea that if somebody is pre-law that culture does have something of a right to help
therrt get up to embrace the law. But once you've done that you can go post-law, you
can transcend the law. You can pull a Thoreau, which is fantastic but when you do
that then you put yourself in the outlaw translaw position, and then therapia comes
after your ass. Whether it's Christ or Giordano Bruno or any of the translaw seers and
visionaries it's pretty unpleasant.
Sep/Dcc 2001 A Conversation with Ken Wilber 55

Rich: Right. Well if you look at some of these translaw individuals like Martin
Luther King, or Gandhi or what not, who are going beyond what is the black letter
law, whose values do we pick? How do we know that person's values are the best or
the correct [laughing] values to have?
Wilber: That's exactly where I think the positive aspects of the universalist position
swings into play. Because it's meant to answer exactly that question. So if you have
for example, somebody who is in an ethnocentric culture oh let's pick one that's not
too controversial, say, the Nazis [laugh], and you are in a sense going translaw, which
I think probably the greatest example of that was Thomas Mann, who started exit as
well known, quite the national socialist, and very much ethnocentric, very much
blood and soil, very much romantic in the traditional sense, and through a very
difficult period moved from ethnocentric to a higher stage of development called
worldcentric and post-conventional. He argues the universal rights of men and
women and used that against the Nazis and probably became the strongest German
anti-Nazi voice over a two-decade period. The same thing happens if you look at any
of the outlaws that we admire—they're all translaw. They're all moving basically
from an ethnocentric to worldcentric or higher. That includes Martin Luther King,
that includes Thoreau in his own way. That certainly includes Gandhi. We can't,
it's very hard to justify their actions on relativistic terms. Because the relativist has
to substitute for universal truth or goodness a provincial and parochial contextually
bound solidarity. See that's the only thing they can anchor their agreement in. Since
there's no empirical truth, there can only be social solidarity. When somebody breaks
that solidarity, it's very hard for them to come up with standards that can justify
breaking a cultural solidarity. Universalists can do that, and while we don't want to
just have a universalist position, I think that's an aspect of universalism and an aspect
of universal broad stages of growth that helps us identify whether a person is moving
in a translaw and therefore justifiable direction.
Rich: Okay, let me switch directions a little bit. What are the limits if any to
reductionism ? E.O. Wilson, in his book Consilience, what may be viewed as his theory
of consciousness, seems to argue that eventually all types of knowledge may be linked
together by reducing higher systems [say psychology] to lower systems [say biology]
to even lower systems [say chemistry]. Put another way, can we reduce the study of
happiness to the study of dopamine, the study of warring societies to the study of
individual personality? Or is that just a lost cause?
Wilber: Yeah, that's one of the longest rhetorical questions that I've been asked [both
laugh]. I think the wonderful thing about the human genome project is that they
came up with only thirty thousand genes. Everybody was hysterical about this
[laughing] you can't do squat with thirty thousand genes [laughing]. You can hardly
build a decent game of checkers, it's pretty ridiculous. So now they are very very quick
to say, oh well no that's not where the action is, the action is in protein assembly unit,
that's where over two million proteins [laughing] come into play. None of which is
specified in the genome, none of it. And if you can't get it out of the genome, you
can't go lower for Christ's sake, [laughing]. O h we can't find it in the genome, let's
look in it for atoms, and I don't think so. Reductionism is, there will always be people
56 Anthropology of Consciousness [12(2)J

who want to do that and I think the motives are in many ways honorable. If you look
at what empirical science has managed to do, despite all the criticisms that it has
gotten, its accomplishments are really rather extraordinary. It has added thirty or
forty years of lifespan to virtually everybody on the planet, put a person on the moon,
medicine, quantum physics, I mean it's really rather extraordinary. And it did so by
coming up with ways to ground its truth point. Unlike poetry or music or art, which
are also important, but science had its own thing to do, and they did it quite well. So
there are always good men and women like Wilson that want to continue that
goodness, as they understand it. So they want to extend scientific materialism
basically indefinitely. At that point I think their noble mode runs into their own
egocentric power drive. I think there's a down side to that which is I don't like your
state of consciousness; I don't like any other states of consciousness. My state, my
stage is the only truth and that's silly. So I think it's a mixture of very, very positive
motives and a shadow side, an under belly side, which looks like to me like a bit of
a power drive.

Rich: Let's switch gears again. In Marriage of Sense and Soul, your book on the
relationship of science and religion, you offer a number of arguments that in part aim
to reconcile these two ways of thinking. Huston Smith wrote that, "no one—not
even Jung—has done as much as Wilber to open up Western psychology to the
durable insights of the world's wisdom traditions." In this book you note thatscience
can't be reconciled with religion if: one, science says the interior always may be
merely reduced to objective subparts and two, if science claims even if there are 'other
ways of knowing' they cannot be verified. Can you expand and clarify this idea?
Wilber: Let's start with number one and remind me if we don't get to number two.
The basic idea of the way science is generally practiced is that it looks for objective
data and it goes beyond that to claim that anything that isn't objective data is in some
sense not real. And that certainly means consciousness or our experience of the
interior because there's no way to objectify that there's no easy way to get a ruler on
it there's no way to frankly reduce that to DNA or molecules or chemistry. That
consciousness somehow doesn't have the same kind of fundamental reality. That
these good old rocks and dirt and all those things that you can see and get your hands
on and that's been extrapolated sometimes into a vicious attack on consciousness
itself or the belief in interiors, the belief that there is anything resembling higher
interiors whether those are stages or states of consciousness. They would just deny
higher states of consciousness or higher stages of consciousness. They deny
consciousness. They deny all the lower intermediate states and everything else. And
my simple point was that, if you actually look at the way that science is done, and most
philosophers of science are pretty clear about this, most of the fundamentals of
science aren't derivable from empirical objects. There are a whole set of conceptual
tools and apparatus, everything from differential calculus to Boolean algebra, none
of which have empirical correlates, no one has ever seen a square root of a negative
one running around out next to rocks and trees, and this entire elaborate interior
conceptual apparatus is used to deny the reality of interior apparatus. And again it's
a performative contradiction. It presupposes in the strongest way possible exactly
that which it claims cannot exist and that's part of the inherent fallacy of scientism
Sep/Dec 2001 A Conversation with Ken Wither 57

as opposed to science. So the first thing you want to try to point out is that an
enormous amount of the truth claims that science brings to the world aren't
empirical. They're interior and have to do with logic and mathematics and all sorts
of interior structures of consciousness that mathematicians are pretty unanimous on
cannot be derived from empirical or sensory objects. So the first thing you want to
try to do is to loosen up their insistence that anything interior is not ultimately real.
If that's the case then science is gone. The second thing was okay maybe there are
interiors. Okay. Oops, right [laughing], but only my interior. We happen to be logical
and mathematical and not your crummy interior. So what I was trying to say is if we
agree that nobody really thinks there's such a thing as the scientific method. If you
look back at what science does there are certain things that most scientific endeavors
have in common and I pointed out that there are really three of them, and these aren't
meant to be exclusive. One is most science has, starts out with, some sort of
injunction. If you want to know this, do this. If you want to know if a cell has a
nucleus learn to cut the cell stain them, and put them under a microscope and so on.
Actually what Thomas Kuhn meant by paradigms, was an example of something you
do in order to bring forth experiences or data, if you will. So the first strand of most
is an injunction. The second strand is some sort of apprehension or experience or
illumination. If you do strand number one, you look down the microscope or you
drop two objects off the leaning tower of pizza [laughing]... If you do that, you will
hear something or see something or register something, some sort of experience will
result from that injunction and that's the data. And as William James pointed out
data just means direct experience. And so you do the experiment the method the
injunction, number one, number two you get some sort of data, some sort of research,
some sort of result, some sort of experience, and then three and that's the part actually
strand two is the part that the empiricists put a lot of stress on. We have to have
evidence for science that's what good science comes down to. And then the third
strand though, which is stated in various ways, is that we do want to have some sort
of communal confirmation or rejection. We should try to have those first two strands
repeated by other people if they get the same results which repeated over and over
again and we never find any contra meaning results then we accept that as more or
less, you know, scientific fact. Or at the very least, it's a theory that is looking very
promising. And if a theory sticks around for a century or two and if nobody can ever
find anything disagreeing with it then it gets to become a law. And that's kind of all
I basically said was if you look at those three strands and you look at any of the
meditative or shamanic or contemplative endeavors that explore the interior, the
best of them follow those three strands. They all have some sort of injunction. I'll
use Zen Buddhism as an example. They have some sort of an injunction in Zen—
its called Zazen. It's a type of sitting meditation that trains the mind to look at subtler
and sublffer aspects of the mind's own processes and that's the injunction, you must
do this you must perform this experiment if you want to know what we're talking
about. The second stage is you do that, and by any intense training getting a PhD
in science, for example. Doing that and taking three or four years of real practice
before you can master the stuff. If you do that, you complete the training, and brain
washing does not work [laughing], just intense, grueling discipline. If you do that
you'll get a series of apprehensions, a series of data, a series of experiences that will
Anthropology of Consciousness [ 12 (2)J

start to register in your awareness. The biggest one is called Satpri. It's an actual
change in stage or state of consciousness that shows you aspects of reality previously
unseen at lower stages of consciousness. You then compare your apprehensions to
others who have completed the first two strands. You can have communal
confirmation and rejection. This is a refined process. Any old experience you have
is not acceptable. Why ? Because there's a lineage of some thousand of years, of some
hundreds of thousands of men and women going through the trajning and looking
very carefully at the data. There are criteria for good data and there are definitely
criteria for bad data. The bad data are falsified and falsifiable. So itfc consonant with
Karl Popper's notions. So I just basically suggested that on those two points that you
brought up, one, even science would have to acknowledge there are interior truths
that are not merely objective and empirical and two, you investigate those interiors
using generally speaking a broadly kind of scientific endeavor. And therefore that
ought to ease the alarm scientists hear when we talk about states pf consciousness.
Rich: I think what you're saying is to attempt to be as objective as possible about the
subjective?
Wilber: I think that's fine, I think that's a fine way to put it, and I need to point that
out because sometimes when I point that out critics think that I'm saying that the
scientific method should cover all the bases as well and that's not true because there
are other aspects of interior states of consciousness that are more expressive and
aesthetic and would fall under art and that there are more moral an^ inner subjective
and would fall under, well, ethics. The point is that a general scientific enterprise can
disclose a great deal of data on these interior domains being, as you said, as objective
about the subjective as possible. Of course it can be done. Mathematicians do it all
the time and so do Zen Buddhists.
Rich: I guess some psychologists would argue they are objective abjput the subjective
too when they ask people for their self reports on questionnaire after questionnaire.
Wither: Oh yeah, any sort of introspective psychology deals witrj this. Any sort of
hermeneutics deals with this. We're talking about interpretation of non-empirical
realities and there's just no conceivable reason that these interior realities are going
to be stripped of their reality in service of trying to reduce everything to dirt and rock
and atoms.
Rich: I just have a few more questions and these relate to anthropplogy. How might
anthropology with its field methods, observations, and intervjew methodology
contribute to the study of consciousness?
Wilber: I think the real and wonderful service that it can and has done, particularly
in the past two decades, is to bring a real understanding of pluridimensional alternate
realities. And the studies of these, on their own terms. It doesn't mean that we also
can't take as part of what we're doing, there's no reason we can't alsq take an objective
stance. Look at for example the use of systems theory to look at r\pw cultures range
their organization based on self-organizing patterns of autopoejic maintenance.
There's nothing wrong with that. It's one way to conceptualize it. But the other way
is from within in a hermeneutic stance, a sympathetic understand jng. So we ask not
Sep/Dec 2001 A Conversation with Ken Wither 59

only what does it do, but what does it mean. And that's incredibly valuable because
it's adding to that cartography of consciousness that I'm talking about. What we're
really doing in a certain sense is like the human genome project, only this is sort of
the human consciousness project. It's a mapping of every state, stage, wave, twitch
of consciousness available to men and women with the understanding that new ones
are emerging all the time. Once we have this really large cartography, then a couple
of things happen that I think anthropology could start to look at as sort of its next
stage if you will, or its next phase. And that is what we do have this big cartography
all these wonderful rich multicultural variations of human consciousness in its types,
in its modes, in its expressions. Once we have that large cartography, do patterns start
to present themselves among that cartography? And that's where I think we'll start
to find an interesting blend of universalists and contextualist approaches. By taking
the best of both of these I think a very exciting discovery will await anthropology, and
it will be a blend of sort of the modern approach to anthropology, which is a rigid
universalistic stage conception, made famous by Comte as basically religion to
philosophy to science for his big three stages and all the lower stages are primitive and
stupid and idiotic and his wonderful highest stage sits on top of it all. That's clearly
not the way to go. But the extreme reaction to that produces the opposite, which is
that there's nothing but relativistic cultural local knowledge. And there's no cross-
cultural commonalities. That's clearly too far in its own extreme, this view. I think
the next phase of anthropology will be finding some way to integrate the best of the
modern and post-modern and for that matter the pre-modern. I think using a
judicious blend of stages and states and types and a general phenomenological
mapping of all the potentials of human consciousness will allow some of these
patterns to start to stand out. And I think that's going to be very exciting.
Rich: Where does anthropological knowledge fit into the quadrants of your theory?
Wilber: It depends on the type of anthropology that you're doing. The two broad
approaches that I talked about which number one is studying societies from an
external stance, an objective stance trying to look at things from type of money, birth
rate, death rate, suicide rate, building code, linguistic signifiers, syntax structures and
so on. That's what I call the lower right quadrant. That's looking at the outside and
social systems' objective entities. They do have objective aspects to them. They can
be studied to some extent that way including certain stages. For example foraging
to horticultural, to agrarian, to industrial, to informational, nobody contests those
stages, those are genuine stages of unfolding. We never find the reverse. We never
find one happening by itself without the others. Each of them actually incorporates
ingredients of its predecessor. But just looking at that from an objective external
stance is the lower right quadrant. The lower left quadrant, which is inner subjective
and shared interiors, I call that cultural instead of social. That tends to be
hermeneutic approaches, those that tend to map the modes and styles and interactions
but have made some attempt to get an empathetic feel from within of what is going
on, and not just distancing yourself in a sort of detached above it all fashion. Mary
Daly has discussed this, Jurgen Habermas has a version also of both exteriors and
interiors, and I think that's increasingly going to come to the fore. Just as we can
combine the best of universalism and the best of contextualism, we combine the best
60 Anthropology of Consciousness [12(2)]

of hermeneutics with the best of systems theory. We don't have to constantly pick
sides and say that one is right and that other one is totally wrong.
Rich: If you could create your own dream team to study consciousness, what fields
would you want to include?
Wilber: Late night talk-show hosts [both laugh].
Rich: Ah, a good way to close the interview [laughs].
Wilber: And any comedian on Broadway. I think any cartoonist in the New Yorker.
I think those three would be where I'd sort of start, [laughing] When it comes to lists
I always forget the most important things. It's like people at the Academy Awards
who always forget to thank the directors [laughing].
Rich: [laughing] All right. Well, I won't make you do that, but as a final question,
what are you currently working on? Do you have any future plans? I know I've seen
talk about the Integral Institute and so on.
Wilber: I am working on the Integral Institute. What we're trying to do there is that
we're starting out with a relatively small number of people, which is we've got about
three or four hundred people. Which on the one hand is a large number of people,
but for an association, it's pretty small. We're starting with that small number
because what we're trying to do eventually is include as many people, as many
scholars and researchers and writers as we can who are interested in these types of
integral approaches that we've been discussing. Approaches that want to include for
example, both stages and states of consciousness, include both universal and
contextualist approaches to anthropology and consciousness and sociology. To
include basically what I would call all quadrants, all levels, all lines, all states. So for
the first couple of years we're keeping it relatively small while we work out
infrastructure, get our funding and so on, and then we hope to simply open the doors
and have some sort of international organization of people who are interested in this.
So that's certainly one of the things that I'm working on. And then I just finished
a horrible novel called Boomeritis and that will completely ruin my life.

Rich: You say it's the flipside to Theory of Everything I guess.


Wilber: And so that will be coming out and bring me untold embarrassment and
grief. When you write non-fiction you try to somehow expose the world, but when
you write fiction you only expose yourself [both laugh].

Note
Acknowledgement: Thanks to Daphne Gomez-Mena for her aid in transcription.

References
Wilber, Ken
1998 The Marriage of Sense and Soul. New York: Broadway Books.
2000a Integral Psychology. Boston: Shambhala.
2000b A Theory of Everything. Boston: Shambhala.