Oliver Sacks RIP


oliver sacks

source: Alamy

I came across the obituary of the great neurologist Oliver Sacks in the Times this morning. Although I have not studied or read any of his work I have come across his name referenced many times in my reading over the years. Recently I have listened to and greatly enjoyed the Radio 4 readings of his autobiography; On The Move.

The obituary quotes a piece, written by Sacks for the New York Times after being diagnosed with terminal cancer in 2014, that I think is wonderful.

After confessing that he had given up following the news and worrying about big issues like the Middle East and climate change, to which he had devoted years of study he wrote:

Over the last few days I have been able to see my life as from a great altitude, as a sort of landscape, and with a deepening sense of the connection of all the parts. This does not mean I am finished with life. On the contrary I feel intensely alive, and I want and hope in the time that remains to deepen my friendships, to say farewell to those I love, to write more, to travel if I have the strength, to achieve new levels of understanding and insight. I cannot pretend I am without fear, but my predominant feeling is one of gratitude

RIP Oliver Sacks



Beyond Left and Right 1

A large amount of political discourse and commentary is dominated by the categorization of views and perspectives as either left wing or right wing (or left leaning or right leaning). What do people really mean by these labels? In my experience if you ask most people this question they will come up with a list of policy examples that they think typify each stance. For example they might say that a belief in the free market is right wing or that a belief in the welfare state is left wing. People typically struggle to generalise and come up with a coherent general definition. If pushed people often come out with some version of:

‘left wingers are kind and caring and right wingers are really selfish’ (from a left winger!)

‘left wingers are fluffy dreamers and right wingers are realistic and practical’ (from a right winger!)

neither of these positions give much credit to the alternative view and it is little wonder that dialogue and mutual understanding is so difficult with these attitudes.

Ken Wilber and the Integral approach seeks, no surprise, to find a way to reconcile and integrate these two perspectives.  We must start with a more precise way of understanding what is meant by these concepts.

Firstly what is politics all about? At its most fundamental it is an attempt to make people in society less miserable. It asks the question: Why do people suffer and what can we do about it?

The pure right wing thinker may answer: people suffer because they lack the personal qualities of endeavour, hard work and motivation, ‘they suffer because they are lazy’.

The pure left wing thinker may answer: people suffer because they are oppressed, marginalised and persecuted, ‘they suffer because they are victims’.

We can note then that the right wingers tend to see the causation of suffering as interior to the individual and left wingers see the causation of suffering to be exterior to the individual. As Ken Wilber puts it:

Thus the liberal recommends exterior social interventions: redistribute the wealth, change social institutions so that they produce fairer outcomes, evenly slice the economic pie, aim for equality for all. The typical conservative recommends that we instil family values, demand that individuals assume more responsibility for themselves, tighten up slack moral standards (often by embracing traditional religious values), encouraging a work ethic, reward achievement and so on…

Ken Wilber, A Theory of Everything

(Note that liberal and conservative is the same as left and right for the purpose of this analysis)

Now I would like to think that, given these definitions, most sensible people would say: Of course, the cause of most problems is a combination of these factors, we can see that difficult exterior circumstances could make someone lack confidence and motivation. Likewise someone’s personal inadequacy could make their life situation miserable despite a very benign and supportive exterior environment.

What I think happens however, in most political debates that polarise around these issues, is that people differ on which aspect of causation needs emphasising in any given situation. It is the legitimacy of the emphasis on interior/exterior factors that is often questioned. These types of arguments often descend into interminable rounds of whataboutery!

We can see that a more integral approach would be to recognize that in most real life policy debates there are both interior and exterior factors at play. Which factors are the most pressing and need to be focussed on and solved is what any mature debate should be about. (Of course we need to trust one another that we are all trying to make society less miserable and not scheming to further the interests of a special group).

When people get very attached to an identity of being either a liberal or a conservative they become unable to objectively assess these factors. They habitually emphasise their preferred side of the argument and thus render true dialogue extremely difficult.

To finish this introductory post it should be noted that this division of the interior consciousness of the individual vs the exterior objective environment is a really key concept in the Integral approach. These two dimensions of existence co-exist and co-evolve together, mutually interacting with and enacting one another.


Hierachy 2: Basic Holonic Theory

The last post introduced the idea of natural or healthy hierarchy. Let us look again at the developmental sequence:

particles, atoms, molecules, cells, organisms

We can see that every entity at each level has simultaneously two characteristics. It is both a coherent whole in its own right and a part of entities higher up the scale. It is a whole/part. These whole/parts are called Holons (a term coined by Arthur Koestler) and natural hierarchies that have a holonic nature are termed Holarchies. (unfortunately this terminology is not commonly used and its use in general discourse is limited, which is a shame as it clearly distinguishes natural hierarchies from unhealthy hierarchies).

Furthermore we can see that as wholes all holons have rights. and as parts all holons have responsibilities. (maybe you can start to get an inkling of the usefulness of this framework!)

We can also note that the more junior a level is in a holarchy; the more fundamental it is. The more senior a level is; the more significant it is.

We can always do a quick test if we are not sure which level is more senior. If we destroy all holons on one level level all senior level holons disappear and all junior level holons remain. For example if we destroy all cells in the universe, all organisms disappear but all particles, atoms and molecules remain.

As holarchies evolve the number of holons at the more senior levels reduces. As depth increases, span decreases. There will always be more atoms in the universe than cells.

When I first came across the idea of holarchies it transformed the way I thought of development. I came to see that all normal development, evolution, growth and maturation is best understood within this framework. From individual personal maturation to large scale socio-cultural development. That is not to say that everything can be understood holarchically. There are vast realms of life that are not arranged holarchically. In human life at any level there are rainbows of diversity of equally depthed holons where any attempt to force a ranking is deeply suspicious (technically, equally depthed holons relate heterachically – ie: without ranking distinctions). In any discourse and analysis keeping all rankings strictly limited to those aspects that are related holarchically is of critical importance.

Of course development does not always proceed healthily. Senior levels in a holarchy can, instead of transcending and including junior levels in a compassionate embrace, dissociate and repress them. We humans seem particularly prone to this pathology in our psychological development. We split off, deny, suppress and generally treat pretty badly fundamental parts of ourselves which results in myriad forms of psychological and social problems for ourselves and others. Trying to untangle these types of  issues as they present themselves in modern life will be a major aim of this Blog.

For further reading on Holonic theory try the following:

Sex, Ecology, Spirituality  by Ken Wilber, especially the ‘twenty tenets’

A Guide for the Perplexed by EF Schumacher

Hierachy 1: healthy and natural or unhealthy and oppressive?

Consider your reaction to the following statements:

X is better than Y

X deeper than Y

X is more mature than Y

X is higher than Y

X is more evolved than Y

X is more valuable than Y

These are all statements that imply some kind of ranking or hierarchy of value between X and Y. They suggest that X in some sense holds a more senior position in that hierarchy than Y.

In my experience these type of statements make a great many modern educated people deeply uneasy especially when applied to human affairs. The suspicion is that they represent an attempt to legitimize the oppression, marginalisation or exploitation of X on Y. This reaction is very healthy as there are a great many rankings and hierarchies that have been used to justify the domination and subjugation of one group over another.

However if we reject all such ranking systems we are left with no way to build an integrated whole in any field and are left simply with a heap of isolated fragments of knowledge .

There is a way of understanding hierarchy that dismantles this danger. All the statements at the start of this Blog are legitimate if and only if: X is more inclusive than Y.  Let me explain:

consider the following hierarchy:

level 1: A

level 2: A+B

level 3: A+B+C

level 4: A+B+C+D

We can say that, for example, level 3 is ‘higher’ than level 2 because it contains all the elements of level 2  (A and B) and adds something new (C). We could say that level 3 transcends and includes level 2, or that level 3 is more inclusive than level 2. A couple of examples may bring this to life:

letters, words, paragraphs, chapters, books

particles, atoms, molecules, cells, organisms

individual, family, tribe, nation, humanity

These three hierarchies follow the pattern outlined above. Each more senior level includes all the junior levels and adds something new. These types of hierarchies are known as natural hierarchies (or more technically holarchies).

Any value ranking system that does not have this pattern of transcend and include is illegitimate and is simply a cover for some form of oppression or exploitation.

This is a fundamental rule and throughout this Blog any valuing, promotion or encouragement towards one viewpoint or perspective over another should be tested against this principle.

The next post will continue this theme.

What is the ‘Integral Approach?’


‘Integral’, as used in this Blog refers to the vision, or map, of reality developed by American philosopher Ken Wilber over many years and many books.

Ken Wilber starts from the premise that ‘everybody is  right’:

‘In this Theory of Everything, I have one major rule: Everybody is right. More specifically; everybody – including me – has some important piece of truth, and all of those pieces need to be honoured, cherished, and included in a more gracious, spacious, and compassionate embrace, a genuine theory of everything…..

To Freudians I say have you looked at Buddhism? to Buddhists I say, Have you studied Freud? To liberals I say, Have you thought about how important some conservative ideas are? To conservatives I say, Can you perhaps include a more liberal perspective? And so on and so on…..’ 

Ken Wilber, A Theory of Everything

The challenge becomes then: How and in what way can all these important truths about the world be put together in a conceptual framework that demonstrates how they all fit together. If we can do this we can start to untangle and resolve some of the intractable disputes, conflicts and disagreements that so plague our current intellectual discourse.

The core concept that is used to start to build such a comprehensive map is that of natural hierarchy. It is the misunderstanding of this idea that, in my experience, is the main barrier to building acceptance and understanding of the integral approach. The next post will lay out the precise way that the notion of hierarchy is to be understood.

On the nature of disagreement!

Over the years I have been involved in many arguments, debates and disagreements on political, social and spiritual issues. Strongly held views and heated rhetoric, each side trying to demonstrate both the rightness of their analysis and recommendations and the wrongness of the alternatives. Sometimes the disagreement boils down to definitional differences and this Blog will try and be extremely strict on defining precisely what is meant by any controversial word or concept.

By far the most common form of disagreement in my view comes when protagonists take what is a partially true and valid, though limited,  perspective on an issue as the whole objective truth about that issue. The discussion then becomes intractable as there, by definition, can’t be two objective truths about something. Most left wing vs right wing political arguments are of this form.

The solution to such debates is to recognize the validity of both perspectives and seek a wider context or synthesis that honours the partial truth of both. In other words we must find a wider perspective that transcends and includes the two partial perspectives that appear to be in conflict.

In Integral theory this ‘transcend and include’ concept is absolutely crucial and is at the heart of building a more inclusive worldview.