The Marriage of Sense and Soul, by Ken Wilber

The Marriage of Sense and Soul

I did not come away from The Marriage of Sense and Soul with an extraordinarily high opinion of Ken Wilber and his philosophy, but frankly it easily surpassed my quite low expectations. I had never heard of Wilber until a year or so before reading the book, but what I’d inferred about him since then had led me to fear he was some goofy Ramtha-style New Age guru. But based on this book at least, he seems to be a fairly reasonable, sane, bright guy.

Wilber spends much of the book summarizing and critiquing the philosophical, scientific, and religious ideas of various philosophers, mystics and popular movements. Does he really have a thorough grasp of all this? Or is he engaged in pseudo-intellectual name-dropping? My sense is that it’s probably somewhere in between. I have considerable familiarity with some of what he discusses, a lesser familiarity with some, and no familiarity with some. In the areas where I do have knowledge, I had an occasional quibble, but I didn’t see any flagrant errors or misrepresentations.

I found some of what he had to say sound and well-articulated. I’m thinking, for example, of his critiques of relativism and postmodernism. Actually, among my favorite things in the book are his frank refutations of various sacred cows of the New Age and of traditional religion.

Still, I have a problem with books like this. If I have the background to critically assess parts of a work, but have to place considerable trust in the authority of the author as concerns the rest, I’d have more confidence in something that is a product of academia. When someone in academia writes a book or submits an article to a scholarly journal, there is a whole system of peer review and evaluation designed to assess its merits and weed out the crackpots. The foremost experts in a given field get to offer their critiques of your work to hammer it into shape before it’s ever published and/or they publish letters and response articles. If you’ve misrepresented anyone’s views, suppressed evidence, ignored a common counter-argument to your position, etc., it will be exposed. The system doesn’t work perfectly, but it’s pretty darn efficient.

When you bypass all that collective wisdom to write a book aimed at the general public, you have a much better shot at becoming popular and making money, but only by evading the scrutiny of those who are in the best position to evaluate your work. I have no idea of Wilber’s history or what involvement, if any, he’s had or has with formal academia, but warning bells should go off whenever an outsider claims to have something valuable and insightful to say and goes straight to the public with it. People like Von Daniken and Velikovsky say a lot of things that seem quite plausible to the layman, but scientists with specialized knowledge in the relevant fields treat them as a joke. Is Wilber the philosophical equivalent of such figures? If Wilber has made profound discoveries in philosophy and science, wouldn’t you expect that on the cover there would be strong praise from distinguished philosophers and scientists, rather than from the likes of Deepak Chopra?

In the end, Wilber argues in favor of mysticism. As I understand it, his position is that there are some subject matters that cannot be investigated through the methods of, and with the presuppositions of, empirical, materialistic science. (For instance, you can investigate empirically what year Hitler died, but not whether he was a good or a bad man. You can investigate empirically how the various Christian dogmas arose and became accepted, but not whether in fact we have a soul that survives bodily death and goes to Heaven. You can investigate empirically how human life evolved, but not what the meaning of that life is.) But rather than treat such matters as unknowable, or worse yet treat all possible beliefs in such areas as being somehow equally justified in some relativist sense, we should, according to Wilber, use a kind of mystical or intuitive method of investigation.

So it still boils down to a sort of quasi-empiricism. You don’t perceive non-physical or normative truths with your five senses, but in an analogous way with some other kind of psychic or intuitive sense.

I don’t buy it. How can we know whether to trust this alleged psychic sense? The best Wilber comes up with is a sort of appeal to popularity. If all the people who meditate the hardest about reincarnation come away with an unshakable conviction that it’s true, then we should rely on that the same way we rely on the conclusions reached by scientists using empirical data. Well, good luck finding a consensus of mystics about anything very specific. But beyond that, the analogy fails anyway. With each of our regular five senses, confirmation is not limited to the claimed perceptions of others. For one thing, we routinely have available to us the confirmatory evidence of our other senses. I hear barking and I turn to see a dog. I see a branch falling toward me and then I feel it land on my head. If I intuit some spiritual realm with the “eye of contemplation” or some such alleged mystic organ, what other sense can I use to confirm it?

If anything, matters are even worse when it comes to normative claims arrived at through mysticism. Normative claims are not claims about some alleged non-physical entities or realm. They are of a different logical category entirely. What would it even mean for a mystic to intuit, for instance, that lying is wrong? It’s not an empirical, descriptive claim, but nor is it some quasi-empirical descriptive claim about some non-material realm.

I think Wilber raises many issues worth thinking about and debating in The Marriage of Sense and Soul—and I’ve barely scratched the surface of them here—and he has some interesting things to say about them, regardless of whether you agree with where he ends up. So while the book did not do a whole lot for me, I do think it has value.

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