You are the river: An interview with Ken Wilber The integral philosopher explains the difference between religion, New Age fads and the ultimate reality that traditional science can't touch.
Ken Wilber may be the most important living philosopher you've never heard of. He's written dozens of books but you'd be hard-pressed to find his name in a mainstream magazine. Still, Wilber has a passionate -- almost cultlike -- following in certain circles, as well as some famous fans. Bill Clinton and Al Gore have praised Wilber's books.
A remarkable autodidact, Wilber's books range across entire fields of knowledge, from quantum physics to developmental psychology to the history of religion. He's steeped in the world's esoteric traditions, such as Mahayana Buddhism, Vedantic Hinduism, Sufism and Christian mysticism. Wilber also practices what he preaches, sometimes meditating for hours at a stretch. His "integral philosophy," along with the Integral Institute he's founded, hold out the promise that we can understand mystical experience without lapsing into New Age mush.
Q: Why has the scientific worldview dismissed this trans-personal dimension? For most intellectuals around the world, the secular scientific paradigm has triumphed.
Wilbur: It's understandable. Historically, if you look at these broad stages, the magical era tended to be 50,000 years ago, the mythic era emerged around 5,000 B.C., and the rational era -- secular humanism -- emerged in the Renaissance and Enlightenment. The Enlightenment was an attempt to liberate myth and base truth claims on evidence, not just dogma. But when science threw out the church, they threw out the baby with the bath water.
You can't prove a higher stage to someone who's not at it. If you go to somebody at the mythic stage and try to prove to them something from the rational, scientific stage, it won't work. You go to a fundamentalist who doesn't believe in evolution, who believes the earth was created in six days, and you say, "What about the fossil record"? "Oh yes, the fossil record; God created that on the fifth day." You can't use any of the evidence from a higher stage and prove it to a lower stage. So someone who's at the rational stage has a very hard time seeing these trans-rational, trans-personal stages. The rational scientist looks at all the pre-rational stuff as nonsense -- fairies and ghosts and goblins -- and lumps it together with the trans-rational stuff and says, "That's nonrational. I don't want anything to do with it."
So where does God fit into this picture? Do you believe in God?
God is a perfect example of how these two types of religion treat ultimate reality. You asked, "Do you believe in God?" In exoteric religion, it's a matter of belief. Do you believe in the kind of God who rewards and punishes and will sit with you in some eternal heaven? But in the esoteric form of religion, God is a direct experience. Most contemplatives would call it "godhead." It's so different from the mythic conceptions of God -- the old man in the sky with a gray beard. The word "God" is much more misleading than it is accurate. So there's a whole series of terms that are used instead by the esoteric traditions -- super-consciousness, Big Mind, Big Self. This ultimate reality is a direct union that is felt or recognized in a state of enlightenment or liberation. It's what the Sufis call the "supreme identity," the identity of the interior soul with the ultimate ground of being in a direct experiential state.