I’ve been wanting to refer on the blog to the article I recently wrote for the Journal of Integral Theory and Practice. Out of respect for the journal’s hardworking editors (and the law!), I will not post the article or its text on the site. But I’d like to give a summary of what I said there, so that blog readers without access to JITP will know what I’m talking about. The argument here is not as precise or careful as that in the article, and readers will need to find a copy of JITP 7(2) to get those details.
The article is above all a critique of Ken Wilber’s method in cross-cultural philosophy, a method that Wilber himself describes as a form of empiricism. (This is above all the method of the current Wilber-5; Wilber’s previous phases of thought strike me as significantly different in this regard.) Wilber recognizes that a philosophy which aspires to synthesis cannot include everything of every position. So he takes on a principle for what to include and what to leave out: he includes only experiences, and then only those experiences which have been brought about by social practices, of the form “if you want to do this, you must do this.” Forms of knowledge or belief that are derived from anything other than these enacted experiences, Wilber refers to pejoratively as “metaphysics” and dismisses.
The presumed payoff of this approach of Wilber’s is that it allows him to integrate both natural science and many different “religions” (or “great wisdom traditions”), on the grounds that this is how they all work. I’m not disputing this methodological approach as a characterization of natural science; it seems to me more or less right as far as it goes. The problem comes when addressing the premodern traditions that we refer to as “religions”. Wilber can take this approach because he claims repeatedly that the “core” or “essentials” of these traditions are constituted by replicable mystical experiences: one follows certain practices, such as prayer or meditation, and will then reliably achieve certain states of consciousness as a result. Wilber’s philosophy is then above all an attempt to integrate the knowledge of science with the knowledge derived from these states of consciousness.
The problem with this approach is simple: these replicable mystical experiences simply are not the core of the vast majority of traditions out there. To start with, most Buddhists – in history or today – have never meditated, even the monks. This goes even more so for other traditions, where mysticism of the structured sort Wilber describes is very much a minority approach. I think Wilber recognizes this much, and is claiming that the core or essentials of each tradition are not to be found among its majority, but its élite masters. While that’s a point one can reasonably make, it is important to remember what a strong claim it is: he is saying that the majority of practitioners in every tradition have missed the essentials – which is surely to say, missed the point – of their own tradition. If you’re going to make a claim that strong, you’d better have good evidence for it.
Unfortunately, Wilber’s evidence for this claim is not strong. He often drops the names of esteemed masters as examples of replicable mystical experience, such as Zhiyi (Chih-i), Buddhaghosa, and Śaṅkara. But as Robert Sharf and Wilhelm Halbfass have noted, the work of these thinkers contains no reference to their personal experiences; they claim instead that they draw on the authority of past tradition, just as the majority of their fellow adherents does. (Some great masters, most notably Candrakīrti, warn their readers not to depend on experience, which is unreliable.) For some teachers, including Jesus, Wilber takes a few quotes with little context and assumes without argument that they were derived from mystical experience. In Jesus’s case, he focuses especially on the claim in the Gospel of John that “I and the Father are One”. But neither the Gospels nor Wilber give us any evidence that Jesus derived this claim from a replicable mystical experience – as opposed to, say, deriving it from a past prophetic tradition (assuming he even said it at all, which the late provenance of John may cast into doubt).
Even these shaky claims of Wilber’s are drawn mainly from Christianity, Buddhism and Advaita Vedānta, traditions in which mystical experience has played a more prominent role than others. In Judaism and Confucianism, by comparison, there is precious little mystical experience to be found. One could count the Jewish prophets’ encounters with God (like the burning bush) as mystical experiences of a sort, but they come unbidden; they are certainly not enacted by replicable social practices. The mystical tradition of Kabbalah – one of the only elements of Judaism that Wilber refers to – is not only marginal to the Jewish mainstream, it is a later development.
The point of this criticism is to establish that replicable mystical experience is simply not the “core” or “essentials” of the premodern traditions. The view that it is, is a construct of the 19th-century quest for a “perennial philosophy” with perennial answers to the great questions. But while I have long agreed that there are perennial questions, I do not buy the claim that they have perennial answers, and certainly not that mystical experience supplies those answers universally. The perennial questions are perennially disputed, with answers going in multiple directions. In my view, a synthesis between different views needs to be found dialectically. One cannot put the traditions together by assuming that they are the same at their heart, whether in terms of mystical experience or anything else — for they aren’t. Instead, one must start with their differences as given, and take those differences as a starting point from which a mature and complex synthesis can be worked out. That’s harder, but as far as I can tell, it’s the only way to find a genuinely encompassing truth. And no empiricist method will get you there, not even one that incorporates mystical experiences alongside scientific ones.