There is much to appreciate in Wilber's model. His greatest contribution is not original conceptions, but an original effort to unite various strands of human knowledge into a comprehensive view of the evolution of consciousness in the universe.
His four quadrant model (subjective-individual, objective-individual, subjective-collective, objective-collective) is a useful way of examining parallel developments in the fields of subjective consciousness and social change. The four quadrants closely correspond with Sri Aurobindo's use of subjective, objective, individual and collective and his fundamental distinction between Consciousness and Form the two subjective quadrants represent consciousness; the two objective ones represent external forms.1
Although he calls his approach an 'integral' theory, it appears more like a summation or a best a synthesis, rather than a true integration. He stresses that true knowledge of any holon involves knowledge in all four quadrants. He points out that developmental stages in each quadrant correspond with parallel developments in the other three. Therefore, he argues we cannot understand consciousness by exclusive focus on any one of the four. Nor can we adequately interpret phenomenon from any of the four quadrants solely as expressions of developments in that quadrant. This approach has the appeal of placing different approaches to consciousness in a wider perspective and curbing attempts to explain everything by one set of narrow concepts, which is especially characteristic of the positivist-empiricist approach. For example, on this basis he is able to strongly reject the view of biological scientists that consciousness can be wholly explained in terms of brain development.
Wilber adopts a hierarchical, evolutionary model of consciousness based on Sri Aurobindo's ascending planes of consciousness from matter to satchitananda.2 He also accepts the common view of many Eastern spiritual traditions that each of these planes, including even matter, possesses inherent consciousness.
Wilber describes consciousness as a summation of changes in all four fields and suggests that its evolution is dependent on all four fields. But this model, just like those he criticizes, does not actually define what consciousness is. Nor does it explain the fundamental (essential) relationship between the four quadrants, i.e. By what process do they evolve? At what level and in what manner are they integrated? How is evolution in each quadrant related to the others? What is the power that governs this evolution? What is the design or intention that determines its direction? He says they are all based on and manifestations of Spirit, but says nothing about the manner or degree to which Spirit determines their evolution or manifests through them.
According to Sri Aurobindo, Consciousness exists outside the four quadrants and manifests or expresses in them. It cannot be adequately explained as the sum of the parts. In Sri Aurobindo's terms, the four quadrants are merely the fields created by consciousness for its self-expression. Consciousness is not limited by the four. Consciousness is not forced to depend for its development on any of the four. It manifests in all four, equally or unequally according to its own choice, because it manifests in everything. The four evolve in parallel because they are all external expressions of the evolution of the same underlying movement, the emergence of consciousness in matter.
Wilber charts the discernible stages of evolution but omits reference to the process that drives that evolution. His list of 20 tenets are characteristic patterns that do not reveal cause or process. Wilber sees the result, not the process that leads to the result. According to Sri Aurobindo, by a process of involution the one Consciousness creates many forms of force with individual centers of apparent existence in which that consciousness is involved. The interaction and contact between these forms of force releases progressively more of the consciousness inherent in them and brings that potential to the surface. In fact he says it is a 'conscious will' acting even in apparently inconscient and subconscious forces that brings about the right combination of contacts for the evolution to take place.3 The emergence of consciousness leads to the development of higher order forms capable of manifesting more of the latent potential concealed within each form.
Wilber's construct provides a useful way to think about the individual and the world, but what does it tell us about action and reaction in the world? To Sri Aurobindo, the life around us is an integral part of us. Oneness is not just a mathematical conception or a reality to be experienced on the spiritual heights. It expresses at every moment. Everything that comes to us from life is an expression of that oneness and is precisely determined by what we are inside. To Sri Aurobindo, the involution and the evolution is not just a logical necessity to explain facts. They are a miracle unfolding every moment. Each necessary stage of our evolutionary progress has been anticipated and provided for by the prior involution. When we are confronted by a stupid man (involved consciousness) or a perverse hostile society (involved force), it is precisely the external pressure needed to awaken consciousness or release force in us. Involution and evolution are living processes of One living being.
Wilber perceptively emphasized the emergence of wider, more inclusive perspectives (holons, holarchies, worldviews) as a natural evolutionary process. Truth evolves by becoming more inclusive. This perspective is the antithesis of reductionism that tries to break down all wholes into their smallest constituent parts, thereby assigning greatest truth value to the part and minimizing the reality of the whole.
Holons and holarchy are wonderful and very pleasing concepts. They so obviously fit the nature of the material world and social organizations that it is very tempting to accept without too much scrutiny that they accurately describe the subjective worlds of individuals and collectives as well. But it is not clear that they do. The evolution of material and biological forms from atom to molecule to cell to organism is neat and irrefutable. Each is a whole in itself. Each forms a distinct part of all the larger holons of which it is a part. In each case it retains its original character but contributes to the emergence of new characteristics that are not apparent at the lower level.
But when we look at the holons listed in the subjective individual quadrant, the relationship seems slightly different. It is true that in the emergence of life there is a progressive emergence of sensations, impulses, emotions, sense-based thoughts, abstract concepts, etc. It is also true that to an extent the lower holons form a base or 'cause' for the emergence of the higher. Physical sensations feed impulses and give rise to sense thoughts. But is there any real sense in which we can say that sensations are parts of thoughts or thoughts are larger wholes that include or (in Wilber's term) 'enfold' sensations and impulses? This is as reductionist as a biological description of consciousness as nervous impulses in the brain. The emergence of thought may be stimulated by sense data, but it can also arise internally, independent of sense data-- in fact, that is Sri Aurobindo's description of pure thought. Thought does not consist of sensation, impulse and emotion as its constituent parts. Yes, there is a progressive hierarchy of subjective elements of consciousness, but the part-whole analogy seems to break down. Holons are a nice way of looking at things, a typical mental way of dividing and aggregating reality. But as such they are not reality and it is dangerous to try to fit all reality into that mold.
But Wilber's model is even more precise about the role of subjective holons. He says that a person's consciousness can be characterized as consisting of three levels of subjective individual consciousness and even provides a normal distribution curve for the distribution of consciousness! a predominant holon (50%), and the holons directly above and below it (25% each). Does he actually mean that the person who lives in the thought mind ceases to have sensations, impulses, and feelings or that a brilliant thinker or even a realized sage cannot have uncontrollable vital urges?
Sri Aurobindo's view is that these are separate, distinct and relatively independent centers of consciousness in humanity. It is true that one or several centers may be more developed and dominant than the others. That is the basis for our typology of nine or 16 levels. But all the centers exist in everyone and the move to higher centers does not necessarily diminish the role of the lower except in the measure it sublimates or transforms it.
The important point is that Wilber's model is replete with implicit assumptions and worldviews like those he condemns. Each of these assumptions deserves to be made explicit and examined rather than just taken for granted as obvious or self-evidently valid.
Wilber's model can be a useful way to depict the interactions between the individual and collective in social development theory. Our thesis is that all social development depends on the subconscious preparedness and will of the collective (subjective-collective) which expresses as aspiration and creative thinking (subjective-individual) and fresh external initiative (objective-individual) by pioneering individuals. The behavior of the pioneer is imitated by others in his social context, accepted, supported, organized and institutionalized by society (objective-collective). Eventually the new behavior becomes incorporated in the cultural values of the society (subjective collective) and is internalized in the value system of individual members of the society (subjective-individual). Wilber's quadrants makes it possible to express this process quite clearly, though I have not read any similar use of it in his writings.
Wilber condemns the tendency to collapse reality into a single quadrant. But he then procedes to categorize collapse? major theories and theorists into specific quadrants they focus on, lending the impression that he is the first to look at all four quadrants are parts of a single reality. For instance, he places Sri Aurobindo as a theorist in the subjective-individual quadrant, ignoring the fact that Sri Aurobindo thought and wrote extensively about the interaction between evolution of subjective consciousness (interior individual) and the transformation of material substance (exterior individual), the subjective existence of society (interior collective) and objective (exterior collective) social and political evolution of humanity. It is likely that some other theorists have been similarly collapsed.
This raises the more fundamental issue of the equality of the quadrants. Wilber treats them all as equals. This may be an advance from most theoretical perspectives and it is fully in keeping with our postmodern romance with equality. Inequality, like hierarchy, has become a dirty word. But what precisely is the rationale for regarding the quadrants as equals? Even if we accept that all four quadrants represent aspects of reality, it does not follow that they are equal aspects or that some are not subordinate to others. This is precisely the type of thinking that Wilber condemns in the positivists. Would he equally condemn it in the subjectivists? If so, how does he justify his objections other than by the fact that inequality is not balanced, fair or sufficiently open-minded? But whoever said reality has to justify itself to the mind's quest for neat mental models.
Sri Aurobindo's view is that the objective is real. It is a projection and manifestation of the subjective. But the subjective is the true determinant, not the objective. Would Wilber condemn this view? If so, what rationale basis has he presented for doing so?
Does a four quadrant model really integrate objective and subjective, individual and collective perspectives of reality? Wilber's approach appears more additive than integrative. He does not explain the precise relationship between the quadrants or the process by which they mutually interact and develop in parallel with one another. For example, in discussing the rise of modernity he does not specifically correlate it with an evolutionary stage in individual consciousness or biology. He indicates correlations at some points, but not causal relationships.
In Sri Aurobindo's view, the inner drives the development of the outer. The evolution of biological forms (exterior individual quadrant) is only a result and expression of the inner evolution of consciousness (interior individual quadrant) within the form that presses for development of more complex organizations capable of reflecting and giving expression to it, i.e. the inner drives the outer. Wilber might argue that the physical form limits the development of subjective consciousness and therefore it is an equal partner in evolution of higher consciousness. But Sri Aurobindo would disagree. He would say that if the inner consciousness chooses to evolve, it will evolve the necessary changes in external biology required for that manifestation, as Mother describes in the Agenda. Actually, the development of inner consciousness is not limited by the external development of the form in its ascent to higher planes of consciousness at all. It is only when we want to transform the human consciousness, rather than rise out of it, that the structure of the current biological form needs to change.
Similarly, Sri Aurobindo says that the subjective development of the collective drives and determines its objective development. They too are not equal partners. The subconscious collective preparedness determines the emergence of consciousness in the individual which in turn leads to the evolution of social forms. Modernity, which is marked by the Renaissance, Reformation, industrial and democratic revolutions, is the result of a transition from the vital to mental phase in the human collective. Mind has existed as an individual possession for millennium, but the emergence of mind as a collective endowment is relative recent and is still in an early stage of development. The progress associated with modernity is an external manifestation of the emergence and large-scale application of mental consciousness to address problems of life. Wilber associates modernity with rationality. But actually science and modernity are much more the expression of the physical mind (level 3 of 9) than the pure rational thinking mind (level 1).
But the greatest limitation of Wilber's four quadrants is the danger that we may mistake them for something real! The reality he is categorizing and pigeonholing into four quadrants is a single, indivisible whole. Mind's attempt to capture it in clear abstract terms gives us a sense of security and satisfaction, but not real knowledge. Thought and language require the use of divided concepts and opposites for their self-expression. But whereas Sri Aurobindo constantly reminds us that any such division of reality is only perceptual (being is indivisible), Wilber seems to really believe in the separate existence of these four. That seems a step backward from what even science has discovered since Einstein – that even such apparent divisions as matter, energy, space and time are inseparable manifestations of a single reality.
Wilber postulates that all four quadrants share three common tests for knowledge, which he terms injunction, apprehension and confirmation (i.e. method of taking evidence, observation of results, and validation of results). His distinction between narrow or superficial science (sensory) and broad or deep science (sensory, mental and spiritual) and his insistence that all three can be approached by the same common tests is helpful because it broadens the field of phenomenon that can be studied scientifically. This view acknowledges that subjective experience is a valid field for science but that it can only be fully studied by resort to appropriate subjective methods, which he states may require in some instances a change in the consciousness of the observer. This is precisely Sri Aurobindo's view that spiritual experience can be systematically repeated and scientifically validated, but only by subjective rather than objective methods.
Wilber also insists that standards for judgment vary from quadrant to quadrant. He terms those standards truth (exterior individual), truthfulness (interior individual), justness or cultural meaning (interior collective) and functional fit (exterior collective). This formulation avoids inappropriate application of standards from one quadrant to another, which is his purpose. But it also seems to mis-state or oversimplify the nature of knowledge.
Wilber identifies 'truth' with scientific proof, which in fact is often just an observation of external phenomenon or experimentally validated concepts. But in what sense can we say that scientific fact is true? He identifies truthfulness or sincerity with subjective individual experience, implying that it is motive and intention rather than substantial reality that is being judged. He implies that subjective reality is only relative. Our experience of it may be relative to our level of consciousness or perspective, but that is also true of the external quadrants. The truth of individual consciousness is not just a function of intention or sincerity. It is a function of the height, plane or level of consciousness from which it is experienced.
The same problem occurs in the collective quadrants. The criterion of functional fit seems to suit the social quadrant. The criteria for the cultural quadrant of justness, cultural meaning, mutual understanding and rightness do not seem as adequate. Is this the only basis for the subjective collective existence? What about common universal values? Sri Aurobindo argues that nations have souls just as individuals do. If soul is the fundamental reality of the collective, it cannot be limited to any ethical standards or to mere symbolic understanding. Sri Aurobindo even describes the rise of nationalism in Germany during the late 19th and early 20th Centuries as a bold advance of the subconscious social collective from materialistic individualism to true subjectivism, an advance that went terribly awry due to the assertion of the nation's ego rather than its soul, but which points the way for more positive expressions in the future.
In sum, Wilber's effort to define distinct criteria for judging reality in the four quadrants is admirable but not fully satisfying.
Wilber explains psychological development as an evolution of consciousness from greater to less levels of egocentricity physiocentric (inability to differentiated subject and object), biocentric (inability to differentiate one's subjective emotions from those of others), egocentric (emergence of one's own identity distinct from others), ethnocentric (capacity to accept roles and identities valid for your group), world centric (capacity to accept validity of different roles and identities for each individual).
This progression up the subjective individual holorachy is a useful way of describing one aspect of conscious development related to the formation and eventual dissolution of ego. The approach treats development of consciousness as a cognitive process. The individual has to change his understanding, self-conception and self-identity. But when taken as a comprehensive description of human personality and its development, the approach is naive and simplistic. It shares the character of most Western psychology that fails to perceive the depths and complexity of human personality.
Sri Aurobindo would agree with a general cognitive progression from egocentric to non-egocentric awareness as one aspect of human development, but his view of human psychology is much more complex.
Wilber accepts the existence of vital energy or prana, but asserts that it cannot be validly separated from the body-mind experience in which it occurs, i.e. it does not have any independent existence. In other words, vital energy is energy of body-mind. Probably he would maintain the same is true of mind (i.e. it cannot be adequately explained in terms of the brain, but it cannot exist independent of the brain). Sri Aurobindo states on the contrary that the vital and mental planes of consciousness exist prior to the evolution of body and mind in animals and man. They are created as universal planes of consciousness during the involution from satchitananda through supermind to matter. They also exist independent of body-mind and interact with it. All truths discoverable by science already exist as knowledge in the universal mental planes. The forces that move life exist in the universal life planes.
According to Sru Aurobindo, what we call vital energy in man is only an expression of the universal force of life which manifests as physical energy in matter (electricity, gravitation, nuclear force, etc.) and nervous and emotional energy in all living beings. According to him, there is only one life force that creates and sustains countless forms. Accepting Wilber's definition, science would never discover the existence of life as a universal rather than an individual force. It would always see the individual life as an aspect of the individual form, of the ego. Wilber believes in non-ego experience, but only at levels above mind where the consciousness rises above the development of the body-mind. This would probably also exclude the possibility of transforming mind and vital and physical, since they must first be universalized by the disillusion of ego before they can be transformed.
Of more immediate practical importance, the existence of a universal life plane is the source of all phenomenon that fall under the heading "life response". By restricting vital energy to the body and the ego, Wilber must reject the possibility (which all great literature and spirituality affirms) that our inner consciousness corresponds to and evokes responses from the wider life around us. That would only be possible if our inner life is a portion of and one with the universal life.
Wilber does not reject but seems to downplay the significance of extrasensory experiences (psi). But if proven, telepathy, clairvoyance and the like would prove that consciousness is not only hierarchical as Wilber says (e.g. existing on many different planes) but also that it is essentially independent of forms such as the brain in the upper right quadrant of his model. The brain functions like a radio receiver to pick up signals from the universal mind planes. The radio waves (i.e. the ideas, thoughts, truths, beauty perceived by great thinkers and artists) exist independent of the receiver.
Wilber is skeptical about quantum approaches to consciousness which are based on the thesis that consciousness is capable of interacting with and altering the 'real world' at the subatomic or intracellular level. Yet Mother's cellular experiences reported in Agenda confirm that consciousness can and does act at least at the level of the individual cell. According to Sri Aurobindo even the atom has ego. All force, even the superstring vibration, is an expression of involved consciousness. More importantly, Wilber's objection to quantum approaches points out a basic dichotomy in his thinking between 'real' or external world and subjective experience. Whereas Sri Aurobindo rejects this schizophrenic view and unifies the subjective and objective, the individual and the collective, as various expressions of one Self-Conscious Being.
Self-transcendence is a basic tenet of Wilber's approach. Each holon transcends and includes or enfolds those that came before it. In this sense each holon is 'built' of subcomponent parts which are lower holons on the holarchy. For Sri Aurobindo this is a decidedly mentalized view of reality, mentalized because mind sees by division and aggregation. While he would agree that higher states of consciousness emerge out of lower ones, it is not by an additive effect, a quantitative building process that forms a greater whole. The emergence of higher holons may be true, but what creates the higher planes is the emergence of higher levels of consciousness, which are not in any true sense combinations or additions of smaller component parts, although their external forms may be so constituted.
Transcendence is the key operative concept of traditional other-worldly spirituality. He introduces the concepts of ascent and descent, but descent for him is only to accept the world as a manifestation of Spirit in a spirit of Compassion, not to transform it. Wilber equates Descent with the materialist's affirmation of the physical world.
For Sri Aurobindo the key operative is transformation, i.e. the emergence of higher planes of consciousness descending to transform the nature of the lower planes to enable them to embody and manifest the higher consciousness. Although Wilber frequently uses the word 'transform', he does not elude to a real process of changing the lower. His preoccupation is with replacing the lower with the higher. In Sri Aurobindo's view, that which is replaced or brushed aside remains exactly what it was before, even if the center of consciousness has risen above and no longer takes note of it. Wilber adopts the Buddhist view that great souls stand on the borderline of existence working until all souls have made the great escape. That may liberate the individual soul from ignorance but it will never change the world.
More profoundly, Wilber conceives that the liberation of consciousness comes from rising above and that the world naturally changes when one has done this. Since all is Spirit, there is nothing really to change. But for Sri Aurobindo, it is not just human consciousness that should rise above and discover its spirituality, it is the animal and material consciousness in man, in his lower being, that should also be transformed to experience itself as Spirit. That ultimately requires a transformation of Matter itself, not just of human beings and human consciousness.
Wilber's description of the evolution of social consciousness from the biological stage (marked by physical domination of the strongest, e.g. the male) to ethnocentric stage (marked by domination of myths and belief systems and of religious groups and races over each other) to world-centric stage (marked by the shift to reason and world-centric standards of fairness and justice) corresponds closely to the progression we have described in social development theory from physical to vital to mental phases. The main difference is our emphasis on the vitally dynamic and expansive nature of society during the middle phase.
Wilber's view that science, morals and consciousness (the Big Three) each has its own truth and a valid contribution to make is similar to Sri Aurobindo's statement on the rightful role of science, philosophy, spirituality in the pursuit of knowledge. But Sri Aurobindo argued that the competition between the three branches has existed for millennium and the tendency of one, now science, to try to eclipse and usurp the role of the other two is not new. In ancient Greece, philosophy dominated. In the Middle Ages, religion. Now science.
In summary, Wilber has done an impressive job of mentally synthesizing many different strands of current thought within a coherent intellectual framework. He places different perspectives in a wider context in which each assumes its rightful place and significance as a valid perspective of a greater whole. His model is clear and logical.
Where Wilber particularly disappoints is in his effort to apply the same mental formulas to subjective life and spiritual phenomenon that he applies to matter and social systems. Here dualisms, dialectics, quadrants and tenets are inadequate to describe the complexity, subtlety and creativity of the processes and their results.
Although he incorporates higher spiritual planes in his model and seems to make Spirit the real basis, the model itself is strictly a mental formulation. He points out the limitation of worldviews that seek to describe reality by dividing it into parts, which is a characteristic action of mind. To counter it, he tries to aggregate disparate worldviews into a single larger framework, which is another characteristic action of mind. Mind knows by division and aggregation. But neither one nor the other nor a combination of the two can truly create an integrated whole.
What is lacking in Wilber's approach is not clarity or rationality. It is life, power and spirituality. His mental model fails as all mental models must in providing insights into the vital creativity and miraculous workings of life. Life becomes a flat, two dimensional force like electromagnetism. His view does not recognize life is a conscious universal power with a character and personality of its own that is constantly interacting with every individual at every moment to effect results that lie beyond the vision and imagination of mind and ego. The evolution of consciousness he refers to is not a mechanical or even a dialectic process it is the Becoming of a living universal Being taking delight in the complexity, apparent struggle and progressive unfolding of its creative manifestation.
So too, Wilber's discussion of spirituality is pure mental abstraction colorless, odorless and lifeless as flat and hollow as the flatland he seeks to escape. It is conceptual not spiritual. His idea of an Emptiness from which everything emerges, of which everything is made and to which everything returns reveals nothing of the Conscious Being and Intention that supports and becomes manifestation. He portrays a ladder from original Emptiness to ultimate Emptiness which signifies nothing except continuity. He advocates transcendence of ego but gives no indication of what exists beyond ego other than a vast impersonality.
Wilber has artfully exposed the limitations of empirical science as a means of knowledge. Yet he seeks to substitute mental philosophy and cosmology in its place. The act of naming Spirit and enumerating spiritual planes is as much an attempt to collapse higher reality into a mental framework as the biologists effort to explain mind in terms of brain.
The limitations of a neat, linear progressive mental approach can be illustrated by contrasting mental logic with spiritual reality, with what Sri Aurobindo terms the logic of the Infinite.
The limitations of Wilber's approach will be evident not just for those seeking a roadmap for spiritual experience, but even more so for those seeking guidance for the understanding and resolution of life problems. Though he may describe and explain historical trends such as the role of women, the model provides little insight applicable to issues facing humanity abolition of war and poverty, stagnation in Japan, chaos in Russia, barbarism in Yugoslavia, the future of science, challenges facing business, potentials for Indian development, etc. It fails equally when applied to the life of the individual in family or in work. It fails because it is not a real representation of life or reality but only a mental model.