Quote for the Day

You might stare for hours at a sunset, and suddenly disappear into the World Soul, and feel yourself at one with all nature. This is well and good. But nature is not the source of this intuition. Worms and rats and foxes and weasels do not stare for hours at the sunset, and marvel at its beauty, and transcend themselves in that release — even though their senses are in many cases much sharper than ours, even though they see nature more clearly than we! No, nature is not the source of this Beauty; nature is its destination. The source is transcendental Spirit, of which nature is a radiant expression.

 — Ken Wilber, A Brief History of Everything

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  1. (a) Doesn’t that kind of imply that nonhuman animals are somehow, for whatever reason, cut off from Spirit and/or cannot see it clearly? What he seems to be asserting is not only (i) that we are different-in-kind from and/or better than nonhuman animals and (ii) that nature is not the source of beauty (despite out immediate perceptions to the contrary), but (iii) that we are not a part of nature (for we look at it as outside observer looks at external object) and (iv) that nature is not in Spirit and Spirit is not in nature (for if Spirit were in nature, there should be no reason why nonhuman animals couldn’t also experience it there, and if nature were in Spirit then we could rightly say that the source of our experience of beauty is indeed nature insofar as nature is an aspect or expression of Spirit).

    As you can probably guess, I disagree with pretty much all of those assertions. I also find them weird, since I thought Ken Wilber was supposed to be one of those writers who was all about the nondual. Here he is very much drawing lines and creating dualities (the most obvious one being between “nature” and “Spirit”)!

    (b) Ken has never owned a cat, I take it? (The idea that nonhuman animals do not experience “transcendent” moments of contemplation or relationship is…. silly. Certainly not true in my own experience, and even the most recent scientific studies have demonstrated otherwise. We know that birds do in fact sing purely for the sake of song sometimes. This claim that animals have no aesthetics and cannot appreciate beauty is about twenty years out of date. It’s one of those self-fulfilling prophecies. If our religion requires us to believe that we human animals are special, we fail to see or learn to ignore the evidence all around us that nonhuman animals share with us some very basic common experiences.)

    Sorry to go all berserker on your post there, Carl. ;)

    • It’s okay, berserk away! :-) As I’m sure you know by now, I take a certain type of twisted pleasure in posting quotes that I know will evoke a “strong” response from at least some of my readers.

      I agree that Ken is being rather broad in his dismissal of the spirituality of nonhumans. But it’s a mistake to read what he is saying as a black/white blanket statement. His argument that humans have a greater depth of consciousness is not meant to imply that nonhumans have no consciousness whatsoever. In fact, he would say that such all-or-nothing thinking is part of the problem of our age. So, no, I don’t think he is implying that animals or nature are cut off from spirit at all! But he does argue that the modern/postmodern worldviews tend to either assume that nature is radically cut off from spirit, or that nature is so fused with spirit that transcendence is denied. Wilber eschews both of those positions as ideologically constricted, and suggests that we need a more integral view that recognizes the entire cosmos as Spirit-in-Action, but that includes a depth/transcendence that can never be mapped in terms of simple location. Put another way, Spirit infuses all of nature, but Spirit is more than the mere sum of nature. Wilber would argue that we are indeed “different” from other species; that’s rather obvious, isn’t it? And he thinks we have to get away from the romantic notion that it’s wrong to acknowledge such difference and wrong to recognize a directionality of evolution. Humans evolved from amoebas, and not the other way around. That directionality does imply value: I would rather be a human than an amoeba. Wilber thinks part of the problem of our age is that we have made all valuation suspect. But asserting that humans have a greater depth of consciousness than monkeys is not about “better” and “worse” in a sense of giving humans license to treat monkeys however we want. Wilber would say that it is laudable to insist on ethical relations between species, but such insistence should not be founded on a silly notion that there is no difference between the species.

      Wilber would say nature is not the source of beauty, Nature is. Who decides what is beautiful or not? I know few people who would embrace the idea that raw sewage is beautiful, or that the rape of children is beautiful, or that nuclear waste is beautiful. So nature, in itself, has no inherent beauty, but rather whatever beauty (or lack thereof) that exists in nature, exists in relationship between the beholder and what is beheld (and interpreted). That “beholder” is Spirit-in-Action, which is Wilber’s definition of the evolution of consciousness. Once again, Wilber is not saying that the bird who sings for the sheer joy of it lacks all consciousness, but that the bird probably does not have same depth of consciousness that you or I have.

      Regarding your fourth point: Once again, Wilber is not saying that animals cannot experience Spirit-in-nature, but just that animals do not appear to experience it in the same depth that you or I do. As for nature-in-Spirit, of course nature is in Spirit, once again, Spirit creates beauty and nature radiates that which is created (or, shall we say, interpreted)?

      Wilber is a nondualist, but he would say that nonduality does not erase duality. Just because I have a mystical experience doesn’t mean that now I can play in traffic. When the car hits me, it will kill me, no matter how nondual I may be. Duality exists within nonduality, that is part of the play of Spirit-in-Action.

      And finally, I have no idea if Wilber has ever been owned by a cat. (I’ve never owned a cat, but have been owned by five so far). I do think it is telling that Wilber did not include cats in his list of animals that he asserts do not experience the same kind of mystical experiences that humans do!

  2. This was a triple treat! I read the quote and went to thank you, Carl, for the reminder to pick up and finish reading this book, which I started months ago and then put down for varying reasons; one of which being that just the first six pages made my brain twist! In a good way, of course. Then I happen upon the comments – thank you for those, they are quite clarifying. Ali – as I read this quote, my initial reaction was similar to yours: the duality, the seemingly easy way Wilber assumes that non-human animals are less capable of experiencing Spirit.

    Thank you both.

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