Ken Wilber’s Subtle Energies and Spiritual Information Theory

In recent writings on Ken Wilber’s site Ken deals with some issues that have been vexing my mind for several years. When we start to talk about the higher level of spiritual realization, attainment, states and structures known in Ken’s writings as the subtle and the causal, practitioners such as advanced yoga teachers, mystics and philosophers like Ken speak of subtle and/or causal matter and energy. This has been for years a source of profound semantic confusion and source of scientific disdain for spiritual matters.

Unfortunately, Ken locks down his site, and the pdf’s it is based on, so that I can’t quote him at length without retyping everything (a sort of informational control that is annoying and shows a peculiarity of his mind I guess). So I will be mostly paraphrasing what he says here. For the whole essay which is part of his (forthcoming) second part of the “Kosmos Trilogy” you can refer to Toward a Comprehensive Theory of Subtle Energies. Much of what he says is in reference to his overarching systematization of knowledge which is called AQAL for “All Quadrants All Levels”. Usually presented as a directed graph seen in the AQAL figure.

Figure: AQAL - All Quadrants All Levels

Figure: AQAL – All Quadrants All Levels

In his discussion of Subtle energies he elucidates three problems and proposes solutions to them.

Problem 1: Metaphysical levels are higher than physics or matter (that is of course what metaphysical means!) and, as Ken trenchantly puts it, the feelings of a worm (in its interior experience) would be on a ‘higher’ level of reality than the physical human brain.

Suggested solution 1: Matter is not lower and consciousness higher. In the world what we call matter (and energy) is not the lowest rung of the “great spectrum of existence,” but the exterior form of every rung. In the Upper Right quadrant we see the exterior forms of things as disclosed by evolution: atoms, molecules, … prokaryotes, up to organisms with a triune brain (us). Each of these material forms has a corresponding consciousness. Even atoms have a proto-awareness. (!) This is adding modern science to the pre-modern wisdom traditions.

Problem 2:  The metaphysical interpretations the ancients gave their authentic mystical experiences could not take advantage of the profound disclosures of postmodernism, ethnomethodology, cultural contextualism, the sociology of knowledge, and so on. All of those taken together, deliver a devastating indictment: much of what the ancient sages took as metaphysical absolutes are actually culturally molded and conditioned…

Suggested Solution 2: This does not mean that there are no cross cultural truths or universals. It simply means that identifying them has to be done with much more care than metaphysics imagined; and that much of this identifying has to be done with research methodology and not speculative metaphysics. The material Lower Right cultural and social artifacts are the exterior of the Lower Left collective interiors. (Something which anthropology has long studied.) This is the post-modern contribution to the pre-modern spiritual traditions. For a discussion of how this plays out in a contemporary teacher see my previous post on the Great Secret of Mind.

Problem 3: The ancient wisdom traditions had a concept of metaphysical, spiritual energy, in Hindu traditions prana. How can we re-interpret this concept more adequately? If matter is not at the bottom, where does subtle energy fit into this scheme?

Suggested Solution 3: Evolution increases complexity of matter (gross form in Ken’s parlance). More complex forms are correlated with increasing interior consciousness. Increasing complexity in gross form is correlated with increasingly subtler forms of energy.

I come from a background in information science and systems thinking. I think that the philosophical basis of spiritual inquiry needs to take into account more than just matter and energy. As a matter of fact (pun intended), what Ken proposes here is a form of subtle materialism. He posits a correlation or isomorphism of matter, energy and consciousness which itself needs logical underpinning. For instance his argument begs the question is the ‘correlation’ of the complexity of matter and energy a necessary and/or sufficient logical cause (not material cause) of consciousness – or vice versa?

I believe that spiritual inquiry needs to have a view of information theory as well as theories about matter and energy. I believe that we need to elucidate an addition to this theory of subtle matter and energy: a Spiritual Information Theory.

My ideas are formed by precursors and influences such as Gregory BatesonAlfred KorzybskiLudwig von Bertalanffy. Let me summarize what I see as axioms from their work:

 The map is not the territory. (Korzybski)

Information is the difference that makes a difference. (Bateson)

The conventional formulations of physics are inapplicable (or need to be modified and enhanced) to open systems such as life, human beings, society and culture. (Bertalanffy)

I think that there is a very good basic philosophical principles underlying the efforts of Ken and myself.

Our concepts of spiritual matter, energy and information  need to be in some sort of fit or elegance with the concepts of physics or scientific knowledge of matter, energy and information.

Our concepts and practices of spiritual development (or evolution) need to take into consideration the post modern insight  that all cultural perspectives are relative and embody intentions towards other people.

Our communication, narrative and cultural choices need to express the highest values and aspirations, not be apologetics for the baser ones.

Information has a structure which has been scientifically studied as well. The study of the physics of information has some profound things to say and inform our spiritual reflections. There are some interesting additions to information theory in the quantum realm as well. The study of perception is a scientific study of how humans detect and process information and can inform how we perceive interior states of samadhi or enlightenment.

Let me try to outline some of my thoughts on information as a scientific background to talking about spiritual information theory.

Information and things are different. Information is a separate area of scientific knowledge which is distinct from the study of matter and energy (material things).

Information is real. Just like matter and energy information exists. Sometimes it is ignored in philosophical discussions like Ken’s. Since information theory really only started n the 1940’s classical physics, old-school materialism and perennial philosophy don’t really deal with the information concepts.

Things contain information. Any information is contained in a system of matter and energy.E.g. the information in our genetic code is contained in strands of DNA.

Information can be copied. The same – even identical – information can be instantiated multiple times.

The form of the information – its content – can be instantiated in very different ‘things’ (matter-energy containers). E.g. I can read a paper book or an e-book, we would agree that they contain the same information.

Information contains smaller bits of information. E.g. A book has pages and words, DNA has nucleotides. (Unimportant here but interesting, there is a smallest bit of information and it is called a bit.)

Information can be changed. There are several information processing activities, as well as content. At the very least information can be communicated, copied, split into smaller bits, recombined into new configurations and concatenated into larger content.

The processing is like a computer program, which runs on the data. John von Neumann’s insight was that information processing is a particular form of information: the instruction. Instructions are further combined into algorithms and those into programs.

Information is interpreted. This is essential. The information is able to make a change in another system – the interpreting system. Information is the difference that makes a difference. DNA and RNA are interpreted by the cell and change how it works; and a great book can change you and I. We are tempted to say because of this that information has meaning, purpose. There are semantic traps here.

Now I am ready to return to Ken Wilber. I can agree with Ken Wilber that an atom contains a proto-consciousness if we can do away with the anthropomorphism and subtle materialism and say that an atom carries information. We can perceive (with the proper experimental setup) the photons released by a change in the energy level of an atom – and that may be information to e.g. a photosynthesizing cell. But we can’t say that it thinks atom thoughts. 

Each level of systemic complexity on the AQAL contains ever more complex information and can do ever more complex processing steps.

The evolutionary, or developmental movement we see in individuals and ecosystems is a reflection of the fact that each prior level creates new information by its very existence that can be perceived and processed and make a difference only at a higher level! The information produced by the prior levels is the food for the higher levels. Ken’s AQAL was not possible until we had a world circling communication and cultural system which would allow him to make the synthesis that he has made of all the disparate strands of psychology, philosophy and metaphysics that he has pulled together. Not only do we have hierarchies of matter and energy we have hierarchies (holarchies!) of information. We have holarchies of both data and processes.

So what are the elements of the Spiritual Information Theory? Some spiritual axioms:

Spiritual reality exists since, as I see it, spiritual information exists. Both spiritual data (insights) and spiritual processes (practices) exist. Materialists deny this axiom; without it you are in the realm of gross materialist reductionism.

Doing the spiritual processes makes a difference to individuals. This is the axiom that spiritual development is possible. And it makes sense to give spiritual instructions such as: Sit up  with your spine straight with you feet flat on the floor, partially close your eyes and gaze slightly downward, breathe naturally, focus your attention on your breath, on each outward breath say the syllable OM. What is that if not a program for a spiritual computer?

The differences made to individuals is sustainable into what Ken calls levels or structures. In fact these are what Allan Combs calls ‘attractors’ which I like since an attractor is actually an informational category as well as an energetic one.

At new levels old information in re-interpreted in a new perception. I will need to talk at more length about perception and interpretation later. It is key to information processing and understanding how information changes open systems’ states and structures.

At the end of this discussion I tentatively conclude that the driving need to smash ‘matter’ and ‘energy’ into the rungs of the AQAL  ladders may not be a fruitful way to conceptualize the Great Chain of Being. This may come as a defensive move to somehow appease an inner materialist who has a a touchstone for granting the moniker ‘Real’ to things needs to have modern classical physical explanatory narrative. Information science has some equally important concepts to add to our understanding of spirit.


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