Explaining the Universe

Up From Eden By Ken Witner Doubleday, 372 pp. $16.95

A MAJOR EVENT in the evolution of consciousness is the publication by a major publishing house of Ken Wilber's latest book, Up From Eden. That no one except the left-field journals like New Age and Mother Jones have reviewed this book shows how much trans-personal psychology--the study of consciousness--has to go in this country before it assumes its place as the field in social sciences.

Wilber, the editor of the Cambridge based ReVision, "the journal of consciousness and change," has written three previous books with titles such as The Spectrum of Consciousness and The Atman Project. They have all been published by the Rudi Foundation, a Lincoln, Nebraska based organization that subsidizes the study of the human mind through its sales of oriental rugs, making it a sort of fringe Ford Foundation Before Doubleday signed up Wilber, his book could only be found in stores that also sold incense and Tarot cards.

But all that should change now. No longer will Wilber be relegated to keep company with books like Better Real-Estate Investing through the Kabbalah. Wilber is a theorist well acquainted with Western scientific exposition and reasoning, and so far he has garnered praise as the Freud or Einstein of consciousness research. As the establishment slowly recognizes the legitimacy of this field, Wilber will be the point men.

An introductory book for the field of trans-personal psychology. Up From Eden deals with generalities that attempt to explain, well, everything. The whole world, It is Wilber's codification of what he calls the perennial philosophy, the bare-bones religious belief that the universe is the backdrop for the unfolding of consciousness culminating in humanity's reunion with some sort of Godhead--the Buddha or Hegel's Absolute Spirit or what have you Wilber does not attempt to reconcile science and religion but instead shows how they are part of the same endeavor, the Atman Project--humanity's constant striving for knowledge of an absolute, such as the Buddhist Atman. As Wilber points out, not all scientists would admit to this. "A scientist who guffaws at the existence of any sort of "infinite" but unashamedly marvels aloud at the 'laws of Nature (with a capital N') is unwittingly expressing religious or numinous sentiments.

WHBER IS CAREFUL because he knows he has to be His field has been associated with mystics and crackpots and flower-strewn gurus who ask you for money. He goes out of his way to document his assertions, sometimes slapping seven different sources onto one sentence, as if to say "See, it isn't only me who feels this way." Among his 444 sources are a lot of counter-culture authorities like Wilhelm Reich and other fringe types who rely on each other for corroboration and consequently get discarded en masse, but Wilber also anchors his theory with some powerful ideas from the safe thinkers, such as Freud, Levi-Straus, Durkheim, Chomsky and that old mystic. Hegel Wilber's grasp on the bannister of western social science is too tight to dislodge, so if the existing regime kicks him down the stairs, he takes the stairs with him.

Up From Eden, despite its basically technical structure, if fun to read, even if you don't buy the theory. There is a lot of stuff to chew on and go "Oh Wow" about. The brain likes to read about itself and some of its exploits. How do you explain barbarism, empire-builders, the practice of burying the dead, the birth of religion? How did Magic Men get away with it? A lot of stuff you just assumed " was always there" has its evolution discussed here.

In the beginning, according to Wilber, was the archaic stage of consciousness, the first stage that could be called human. Wilber uses the image of the uroboros--the serpent devouring its own tail--to illustrate this stage's total self-absorption. The dichotomies of Subject and Object, and Self and World had not yet been made. This stage is similar to Piager's description of the early stages of an infant's cognitive development.

Around 200,000 B.C. man evolved into the magical stage. Here we have an ego developing, but it is more of a body-ego than a mental ego. Most of the conclusions Wilber makes about this era are based on the speculations of others, such as Joseph Campbell and Ernst Cassifer. Historical Explanation is always a risky business and many of the educated guesses Wilber makes about events 200 millennia ago should be treated as such.

Seeing how confused things were when men couldn't distinguish between dreams and reality, man had to evolve next to the mythical stage, which ran from about 10,000 B.C. to 1000 B.C. Here we're seeing mythology, and the birth of serious Atmas Projects, life-enhancing or death-denying activities. We see agriculture as well as organized murder in the form of wars. Around this point in the book the reader begins to see how potentially powerful trans-personal psychology is as a tool for understanding history. Viewing the common good for fascinating explanations of behavior that is inconceivable--human sacrifice for example "Civilization" is not an explanation but merely the name for the process that has restricted the spectrum of human action. Up From Eden can be described as a technical analysis of the process of civilization.

And then rationality stepped in. The first outbreak of cold logic is believed to have occurred in the sixth century B.C. in Greece Philosophy appeared and mythology was removed from the non-fiction sections of bookstores. Chances are you are in this stage, known as mental-egoic.

NOW, WHAT MAKES THIS an interesting theory is that Wilber believes that in any given moment, there are several modes of consciousness occurring. As he points out, there is still a substantial portion of the population in the mythical stage. However, there are also three stages reachable today that are higher than the mental-egoic level. The individuals who operate at these levels are usually gurus, saints, philosophers and book reviewers. Closest to mental egoic is the Psychic level, marked by the beginnings of behavior based on transcendence of the rational Intuition becomes dominant. The stock-broker who bases his transactions on the I-Chungn is an example of this. Then comes the subtle level, which is an intensification of transcendence. At this level, the individual can begin to see the end of the tunnel, the golden road to unlimited devotion. At the last stage, the causal level, the individual becomes the end of the road. He is at one with the universe. He is a unity with nature. Nothing passes him off.

Okay, you don't have to take Wilber's word for it. But as more "serious" physicists like Wheeler and Capra sound like Zen Masters, and more and more gurus get wired up to bio-feedback machines, and as the rational West more and more confirms the metaphysics of the intuitive East, someone you trust is bound to confirm a great deal of Wilber's work. Sure, there are a lot of fakes who take advantage of the "Gee-Whiz" aspects of the field. But the west is going to have to accept the study of levels of consciousness as the primary area of psychology and social science, and it should start with the work of a serious theorist such as Wilber, Pioneers such as John Lily and Timothy Leary were a bit too far ahead of their time to be the Moseses of meditation studies.

Up From Eden is the most important book now available in the field of social science. I cannot recommend it strongly enough for any one who seeks answers to big questions. You may attack his methodology, his technique, his conclusions--but at least he's in the right goddam field. You cannot attack his relevance. His subject matter is the sacred--and that's pretty dame important. The evolution of consciousness is behind all forms of human endeavour and now that we are aware of this evolution, we become part of the process--we take, part in the making of the future:

And if we--you and I--are to further the evolution of mankind, and not just reap the benefits of past humanity's struggles, if we are to help the overcoming of our self-alienation from the spirit and not merely perpetrate it, then meditation--or a similar and truly contemplative practice--becomes, not so much a wicked affair, but rather a case of merely enjoying the level of consciousness which past heroes achieved for us. We contribute nothing, we pass on our mediocrity.