His misunderstanding of Plotinus, a Neoplatonist Greek philosopher, is especially irritating to me. I wrote a book about Plotinus, "Return to the One." I spent several years reading just about every book in English that describes and analyzes Plotinus' teachings.
So when I saw how Ken Wilber mangled Plotinus in an attempt to demonstrate that Plotinus' outlook is on the same page as Wilber's nondual perspective, I was filled with righteous philosophical indignation.
Which made me eager to write an expose of "What Wilber Gets Wrong About Plotinus."
Frank Visser asked me if he could post this piece on his Integral World web site. Naturally I said sure. (It also is included in a recently published book of Wilberian essays, "Spheres of Awareness.")
I re-read my piece yesterday. It's pretty damn good, if I say so myself (and why shouldn't I?). I was impressed with how much I knew about Plotinus and Wilber when I wrote it, since my ponderings since have drifted in other directions.
Ken Wilber gets nailed to a non-scholarly wall by his failure to go beyond a superficial reading of Plotinus. This is typical Wilber behavior.
In an effort to cram all of human knowledge into his Integral framework, a lot of distortions have to be made so that everything fits together into, well, a Theory of Everything.
Wilber is notoriously touchy about criticism. This helps explain why his writings haven't gotten much attention in academia, where "just trust me" doesn't fly with skeptical scholars.
Instead, Ken Wilber mostly preaches to the choir of his faithful followers through the EnlightenNext magazine and countless seminars, workshops, and such. I've got no problem with this. Wilber has some interesting things to say.
But his sayings shouldn't distort facts. Plotinus is one of Wilber's key Western philosophical mainstays who offers some balance to the generally Eastern/Buddhist thrust of the Integral viewpoint.
If you read those Wikipedia articles, it's hard to tell the difference between monism and non-dualism. My essay, though, shows that Wilber's description of non-dualism is markedly different from Plotinus' One.
Download Wilber and Plotinus article2
As I say at the end of it, obviously I don't know what ultimate reality is like. Nobody does, Ken Wilber included. All we can do is look at evidence and come to the best conclusions we can.
I've got a strong scientific bent. It seems to me that understanding the observable universe is the best first step (and maybe the last step) toward grasping unseen mysteries.
In Carl Sagan's "The Varieties of Scientific Experience" he writes:
Contrast this [anthropomorphic view] with a quite different version of God, one proposed by Baruch Spinoza and by Albert Einstein. And this second kind of god they called God in a very straightforward way. Einstein was constantly interpreting the world in terms of what God would or wouldn't do.
But by God they meant something not very different from the sum total of the physical laws of the universe; that is, gravitation plus quantum mechanics plus grand unified field theories plus a few other things equaled God.
And by that all they meant was that here were a set of exquisitely powerful physical principles that seemed to explain a great deal that was otherwise inexplicable about the universe.
Laws of nature, as I have said earlier, that apply not just locally, not just in Glasgow, but far beyond: Edinburgh, Moscow, Peking, Mars, Alpha Centauri, the center of the Milky Way, and out by the most distant quasars known.
That the same laws of physics apply everywhere is quite remarkable. Certainly that represents a power greater than any of us. It represents an unexpected regularity to the universe. It need not have been. It could have been that every province of the cosmos had its own laws of nature.
So it's reasonable to look upon the laws of nature as "God." Many of these laws can be formulated in mathematical terms. And most mathematicians are Platonists of one variety or another -- as is Plotinus.
Here's how I put it in my essay:
Shimon Malin, a physicist, has written about the relationship between science and Plotinus's teachings in his book, "Nature Loves to Hide: Quantum Physics and the Nature of Reality, a Western Perspective." Malin says:
For Plotinus, the sensible world is a mere reflection of the noumenal; for science, the sensible is the real thing, the only reality there is. The world of science is the world as given by the senses. Oddly, however, the Nous [Intellect] is not entirely absent from it. The Nous did lose its life, but not its presence. The idea that the sensible world is sustained and directed by an invisible substratum is the fundamental premise of science. This invisible substratum is called “the laws of nature.”
...So if I had to place a bet on which conception is closer to the truth, Wilber's non-duality or Plotinus's hierarchy of being (soul, spirit, and source—the One), I'd put my philosophical money on Plotinus. For the existence of the well-structured and seemingly unchanging laws of nature argues against Wilber's holonic, shape-shifting belief that the One is the Many.
There seem to be levels of being in the cosmos, some more real, permanent, and substantial than others. At the least, there are (1) laws of nature and (2) what is governed by those laws. Plotinus goes further and says that those laws are transmitted by soul from a transcendental Intellect that gets its power and wisdom from a even higher reality—the One.
As Wilber says, Plotinus's vision is coherent and compelling. I only wish that Wilber had presented that vision more accurately in "Sex, Ecology, Spirituality." Plotinus deserves better.