Bald Ambition

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* Book: Bald Ambition: Critique of Ken Wilber's Theory of Everything. Jeff Meyerhoff. Inside the Curtain Press, 2010

Free version at

= a book critical of Ken Wilber's integral theory and arguing against intellectual versions of spiritual authoritarianism


Author's Motivation

"I decided to write Bald Ambition after reading the first few pages of his magnum opus Sex, Ecology, Spirituality. It seemed so wrong-headed and contradicted what I believed and dealt with a lot of philosophical, psychological and spiritual material that I was interested in. My book was well-received from people comfortable with taking a critical stance toward Wilber, but poorly received by those who believed in his integral theory. Wilber eventually responded to the book in a recorded interview (actually a monologue), but it was obvious he hadn't read the book and felt attacked by my criticisms of his theory. The book contributed to Wilber's anger at Frank Visser's publishing of a variety of views of Wilber's work which led to Wilber's unfortunate blog entry in June of 2006 which appeared to be a knee-jerk, rageful rant at his "critics," but which he said was a well-considered effort to separate the higher, integral wheat from the lower, non-integral chaff. Odd behavior from someone purporting to respect intellectual debate, but clever for someone whose unconscious goal was to avoid criticism. It had the desired effect, splitting the Wilber integral community and insulating Wilber from real critique. Two Wilber admirers in the next generation have been making a good faith effort to repair the split. I now feel more sympathy for Wilber. I still think his theory is fundamentally flawed but he has improved it, although at the cost of greater complexity and less accessibility."


What is wrong 'generally' with the scientific basis of Wilber's work

"Orienting generalizations are the already-agreed-upon background knowledge that scholars in specific fields take to be true as they debate the issues on which they differ. Wilber claims that his integral synthesis is constructed out of this “simple but sturdy” background knowledge, and so has the validity that the natural, social, and spiritual sciences can provide. The research in this book demonstrates that Wilber does not use the orienting generalizations of the sciences as he claims. As a replacement method he quotes some great names in science. Because he does not have the authority of the orienting generalizations, Wilber tends to caricature perspectives different from his own, and thereby not confront the problems they would pose were they strongly formulated. He creates his synthesis by weaving together the ideas that he finds congenial to his outlook and fits them together to make his synthesis. This is problematic because his synthesis is supposed to be a transcendence of all less inclusive correct views, yet, actually, it excludes those arguably correct views that do not fit his particular integration." Bald Ambition, p. 185.

The concept of spiritual authoritarianism

In this case wilber's intellectual version of it:

"[Wilber's] contention that people who have an experience of the Ultimate have some advantage over those who have not in debates about the cross-cultural similarity or dissimilarity of mysticisms may seem convincing, but when examined more closely really has no bearing on such debates. According to Wilber’s journals, his non-dual experience dates from the later ’80s. He wrote The Spectrum of Consciousness in the late ’70s, and in it made his argument for the perennial philosophy. Does his not having had the ultimate mystical experience invalidate his argument? No. Let’s assume he did have by that time a glimpse of the Absolute, would it have lent more credence to his argument? No, because to argue that all the major mystical traditions lead toward the same ultimate state and to argue that it requires experiential knowledge to evaluate this requires one person to have achieved the Ultimate through all the different traditions. There is no one like that. Even having a glimpse of the Ultimate through one tradition doesn’t lend greater credence to one’s perennial philosophy arguments, because, as Wilber himself had to do in The Spectrum of Consciousness, one still has to read the relevant mystical texts and show with words that the major mystical traditions all point to the same goal. It’s the validity of the textual analysis that is the ultimate determiner of correctness, whether you’re the Dalai Lama, Steven Katz, or Ken Wilber. This is why it’s a losing battle for mystics to try to prove the ultimacy of their insight using the tools of rational debate. And it is why mystics say that one must transcend language and conceptuality to realize the ultimate insight." Bald Ambition, p. 110.


- Unsourced reading notes from Michel Bauwens, 2006, titled 'Critique of Ken Wilber', from Jeff Meyerhoff.


Since his method of orienting generalizations is unworkable, he uses citations of famous authors as proof of facts. For example, he will cite De Saussure, but ignore Derrida's critique.

He repeatedly uses straw man and represents their arguments in a weak fashion.

He uses one side in ongoing debates, thus building his synthesis on things that are debatable.

Wilber assumes there is 'one world', and there are many perspectives on it, rather than accepting differences as multiple ways to construct realities. The philosopher Nelson Goodman (Ways of Worldmaking, 1978) has made a strong argument that there are contradictory truths that cannot be assimilated into one coherent picture of the world. There is no reality apart from the perspective. Andrew Blais (On the Plurality of Actual Worlds, 1997), who has elaborated on Goodman's work, has argued that there is a plurality of actual worlds.

Meyerhoff also references, 'Value Presuppositions in Theories of Human Development', where Jerome Kagan, Jerome Bruner, Carol Gilligan et al. debate the values lodged within developmental descriptions of cognition. Hayden White, in The Content of Form, shows that telling a story entails having a moral or values, otherwise, facts are just a list.

The philosopher Michael Krausz has edited two well-regarded texts on relativism (Varieties of Relativism). Meyerhoff says that Wilber is especially weak in his attack on relativism.

Epistemologial avenues are the pragmatism of Rorty, or the 'interpretative communities' of Stanley Fish.

Meyerhoff suggests checking the modern spiritual adepts of mystics such as Rmesh Balsekar and Poonjaji.

Wilber conflates spiritual and intellectual attainment: all his books are evidence of intellectual attainment, therefore he should be judged on these grounds. Wilber's models are infused with values ('more inclusive is better'), which are themselves not justified. Meyerhoff disagrees with the basic assumption that 2 true statements cannot be 'really' contradictory because there must be a higher perspective.

For his synthesis, Wilber uses mostly the 'evolutionary systems science', as explained by Erwin Laszlo and Eric Jantsch.

On the topic of 'progress in evolution', Meyerhoff cites Michael Ruse, who writes: "More recent work on measures of complexity shows that there is just no good reason to think that complexity as a necessarily ever-increasing product of the evolution process."

And Stephen Jay Gould writes in, The Structure of Evolutionary Theory': "Initial research shows increasing complexity is not a neessary or even common evolutionary occurrence; it shows no departure from the random model when all events of speciation are tabulated."

Charles Tilly in Huge Comparisons, concerning human social evolutin, says that the "idea of increasing differentiation is one of the pernicious postulates of 19th cy social theory.

In the chapter on development psychology, he shows that the views presented as a consensus, are actually a minority point of view. Especially, contested by cultural psychologists is the cross-cultural validation claimed by Wilber.

In the chapter on vision-logic, he shows that the direct witnessing of mind is problematic. Vision-logic is a perspective itself and it is difficult to argue that it is superior."

JM recommends Robert Siegler's Emergent Minds, a well-known developmental psychologist has constructed a model without levels and waves, based on the individual's strategy choices. He disagrees with Wilber, saying that there is no dominant theory of cognitive development: neo-Piagetian, Vygotskian, they have all been shown to be inconsistant with a great deal of data; none of them can claim the adherence of the majority of investigators." Research in "Lawrence Kohlberg: Consensus and Controversy' shows that virtually all the critics agree that there is scant data to confirm stages 5 and 6.

Richard Schweder in Thinking through cultures, finds that "many descriptions of mental functioning from laboratory research with western-educated populations do not travel very well to subject populations in other cultures."

John Berry, the author of a handbook on Cross-Cultural Psychology confirm that many in cultural psychology reject Wilber's position of a psychic unity of mankind.

Regarding epistemoloy and the 'one-world-hypothesis', Meyerhoff distinguishes:

- 1) one-world: there is one world and therefore all accurate descriptions should eventually fit in one great description

- 2) perspectivism: there may be one world, but we can never know it because of our spatial, temporal, historical, and linguistic embeddedness

- 3) many-worlds: because one's perspective affects the appearance of the world, we can speak of many world that are not reducible to one world

Meyerhoff also distinguishes 3 positions on universalism

- 1) absolutism: there is a psychic unity of mankind, and culture plays (almost) no role

- 2) universalism: basic psychological features are likely to be common to mankind, but their manifestations are refracted by culture

- 3) relativism: there is no psychic unity in mankind, culture makes us different

Regarding Wilber's account of Western history, in SES, Meyerhoff believes that the account of the struggle between Ascenders and Descenders, and of Ego vs Eco, are simplifications of a much more complex history. The characterization of Romanticism as Descenders with Eco characteristics ignores their intense spiritual element, i.e. the infinite as as everywhere present in the finite, as well as their discovery of the depth of the Self. It's all but a a 'flatland ontology'.