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An Integral Theory Of Consciousness

Posted by Jamil Syvak on May 29, 2008


Ken Wilber

Journal of Consciousness Studies, 4 (1), February 1997, pp. 71-92
Copyright, 1997, Imprint Academic

Abstract: An extensive data search among various types of developmental and evolutionary sequences yielded a `four quadrant’ model of consciousness and its development (the four quadrants being intentional, behavioural, cultural, and social). Each of these dimensions was found to unfold in a sequence of at least a dozen major stages or levels. Combining the four quadrants with the dozen or so major levels in each quadrant yields an integral theory of consciousness that is quite comprehensive in its nature and scope. This model is used to indicate how a general synthesis and integration of twelve of the most influential schools of consciousness studies can be effected, and to highlight some of the most significant areas of future research. The conclusion is that an `all-quadrant, all-level’ approach is the minimum degree of sophistication that we need into order to secure anything resembling a genuinely integral theory of consciousness.


There has recently been something of an explosion of interest in the development of a `science of consciousness’, and yet there are at present approximately a dozen major but conflicting schools of consciousness theory and research. My own approach to consciousness studies is based on the assumption that each of these schools has something irreplaceably important to offer, and thus what is required is a general model sophisticated enough to incorporate the essentials of each of them. These schools include the following:

1. Cognitive science tends to view consciousness as anchored in functional schemas of the brain/mind, either in a simple representational fashion (such as Jackendoff’s `computational mind’) or in the more complex emergent/connectionist models, which view consciousness as an emergent of hierarchically integrated networks. The emergent/connectionist is perhaps the dominant model of cognitive science at this point, and is nicely summarized in Alwyn Scott’s Stairway to the Mind (1995), the `stairway’ being the hierarchy of emergents summating in consciousness.

2. Introspectionism maintains that consciousness is best understood in terms of intentionality, anchored in first-person accounts — the inspection and interpretation of immediate awareness and lived experience — and not in third-person or objectivist accounts, no matter how `scientific’ they might appear. Without denying their significant differences, this broad category includes everything from philosophical intentionality to introspective psychology, existentialism and phenomenology.

3. Neuropsychology views consciousness as anchored in neural systems, neurotransmitters, and organic brain mechanisms. Unlike cognitive science, which is often based on computer science and is consequently vague about how consciousness is actually related to organic brain structures, neuropsychology is a more biologically based approach. Anchored in neuroscience more than computer science, it views consciousness as intrinsically residing in organic neural systems of sufficient complexity.

4. Individual psychotherapy uses introspective and interpretive psychology to treat distressing symptoms and emotional problems; it thus tends to view consciousness as primarily anchored in an individual organism’s adaptive capacities. Most major schools of psychotherapy embody a theory of consciousness precisely because they must account for a human being’s need to create meaning and signification, the disruption of which results in painful symptoms of mental and emotional distress. In its more avant-garde forms, such as the Jungian, this approach postulates collective structures of intentionality (and thus consciousness), the fragmentation of which contributes to psychopathology.

5. Social psychology views consciousness as embedded in networks of cultural meaning, or, alternatively, as being largely a byproduct of the social system itself. This includes approaches as varied as ecological, Marxist, constructivist, and cultural hermeneutics, all of which maintain that the nexus of consciousness is not located merely or even principally in the individual.

6. Clinical psychiatry focuses on the relation of psychopathology, behavioural patterns, and psychopharmacology. For the last half century, psychiatry was largely anchored in a Freudian metapsychology, but the field increasingly tends to view consciousness in strictly neurophysiological and biological terms, verging on a clinical identity theory: consciousness is the neuronal system, so that a presenting problem in the former is actually an imbalance in the latter, correctable with medication.

7. Developmental psychology views consciousness not as a single entity but as a developmentally unfolding process with a substantially different architecture at each of its stages of growth, and thus an understanding of consciousness demands an investigation of the architecture at each of its levels of unfolding. In its more avant-garde forms, this approach includes higher stages of exceptional development and wellbeing, and the study of gifted, extraordinary, and supranormal capacities, viewed as higher developmental potentials latent in all humans. This includes higher stages of cognitive, affective, somatic, moral, and spiritual development.

8. Psychosomatic medicine views consciousness as strongly and intrinsically inter-active with organic bodily processes, evidenced in such fields as psychoneuro- immunology and biofeedback. In its more avant-garde forms, this approach includes consciousness and miraculous healing, the effects of prayer on remarkable recoveries, light/sound and healing, spontaneous remission, and so on. It also includes any of the approaches that investigate the effects of intentionality on healing, from art therapy to visualization to psychotherapy and meditation.

9. Nonordinary states of consciousness, from dreams to psychedelics, constitute a field of study that, its advocates believe, is crucial to a grasp of consciousness in general. Although some of the effects of psychedelics — to take a controversial example — are undoubtedly due to `toxic side-effects’, the consensus of opinion in this area of research is that they also act as a `nonspecific amplifier of experience’, and thus they can be instrumental in disclosing and amplifying aspects of consciousness that might otherwise go unstudied.

10. Eastern and contemplative traditions maintain that ordinary consciousness is but a narrow and restricted version of deeper or higher modes of awareness, and that specific injunctions (yoga, meditation) are necessary to evoke these higher and excep- tional potentials. Moreover, they all maintain that the essentials of consciousness itself can only be grasped in these higher, postformal, and nondual states of consciousness.

11. What might be called the quantum consciousness approaches view consciousness as being intrinsically capable of interacting with, and altering, the physical world, generally through quantum interactions, both in the human body at the intracellular level (e.g. microtubules), and in the material world at large (psi). This approach also includes the many and various attempts to plug consciousness into the physical world according to various avant-garde physical theories (bootstrapping, hyperspace, strings).

12. Subtle energies research has postulated that there exist subtler types of bio- energies beyond the four recognized forces of physics (strong and weak nuclear, electromagnetic, gravitational), and that these subtler energies play an intrinsic role in consciousness and its activity. Known in the traditions by such terms as prana, ki, and chi — and said to be responsible for the effectiveness of acupuncture, to give only one example — these energies are often held to be the `missing link’ between intentional mind and physical body. For the Great Chain theorists, both East and West, this bioenergy acts as a two-way conveyor belt, transferring the impact of matter to the mind and imposing the intentionality of the mind on matter.

My own approach to consciousness involves a model that explicitly draws on the strengths of each of those approaches, and attempts to incorporate and integrate their essential features. But in order to understand this model, a little background information is required. What follows is a very brief summary of an approach developed at length in a dozen books, including Transformations of Consciousness (Wilber et al., 1986), A Brief History of Everything (1996d) and The Eye of Spirit (1997), which the interested reader can consult for detailed arguments and extensive references. But I believe the following summary is more than adequate for our present purposes.

The Four Corners of the Kosmos

Figure 1 (below) is a schematic summary of what I call `the four quadrants’ of existence: intentional, behavioural, cultural and social. These four quadrants are a summary of a data search across various developmental and evolutionary fields. I examined over two hundred developmental sequences recognized by various branches of human knowledge — ranging from stellar physics to molecular biology, from anthropology to linguistics, from developmental psychology to ethical orientations, from cultural hermeneutics to contemplative endeavours — taken from both Eastern and Western disciplines, and including premodern, modern, and postmodern sources (Wilber 1995b, 1996d). I noticed that these various developmental sequences all fell into one of four major classes — the four quadrants — and further, that within those four quadrants there was substantial agreement as to the various stages or levels in each. Figure 1 is a simple summary of this data search; it thus represents an a posteriori conclusion, not a priori assumption.

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