Note: These reflections are transcribed from a video that Ken Wilber prepared to be shown at an event titled “From Self Care to Earth Care” held in Boulder Colorado on July 18, 2015. To facilitate understanding of Wilber’s comments, we provide the following background on the “Integral Map” – or four-quadrant model—of Integral Theory.”15

Wilber argues that manifest reality is composed of four domains, and that each domain, or “quadrant”, has its own truth-standard, or test for validity:

  • “Interior individual/1st person”: the subjective world, the individual subjective sphere;
  • “Interior collective/2nd person”: the intersubjective space, the cultural background;
  • “Exterior individual/3rd person”: the objective state of affairs;
  • “Exterior collective/3rd person”: the functional fit, “how entities fit together in a system”.

Wilber’s comments on Does Altruism Exist? begin at app. 1:20 hour of the video.

“These are four dimensions of the same occasion, which is why they are so intimately interwoven, and this includes their evolution. Scientific materialism, which believes only in the exterior views of an objective “It”, and a systems “Its”, and not the interior views of “I” or a “We”, thinks that evolution occurs only in those exterior objective quadrants with a chance mutation in the individual exterior dimension giving and advantage in the fight for survival and that mutation is selected for by a collective exterior environment, through natural selection.

For the orthodox view the interiors, or symbolic meaning and cultural factors, are not really involved views are not really directly involved in evolution. It is more simply exterior material/ random chance/ survival evolution. But this is an odd view, if you think about it. And David Sloan Wilson certainly has thought about it and as he points out, that in addition to orthodox forms, that mental symbolic forms and cultural forms are also inherently involved in evolution. In other words, evolution occurs in all four quadrants, as Integral Meta-theory maintains.

Now I am not claiming that Dr. Wilson agrees with all the details of the integral view but there are unmistakable compatibilities, especially in the types of phenomena that are passed forward, the same kinds of phenomena that are passed forward in evolution. In other words it is not just fitness in the lower right quadrant but fitness in all four quadrants that determines what is carried forward and what rendered extinct.

Now, think about it– from the Big Bang where there were only something like quarks and strings, all the way to Shakespeare’s poetry, the whole movement, according to the orthodox view is nothing but only a colossal accident coupled with a more successful way to get laid [laughs]. But clearly, the very existence of so many of evolution’s higher levels shows the universe is not winding down, the universe is winding up.

Randomness is exactly what the universe is overcoming, as Ilya Prigogene would put it, it is producing order out of chaos at every turn. And this is the central point. This means all four quadrants, not just in the exterior objective quadrants. This all-pervading drive of self-organizing can be called many things— “eros”, “spirit in action”, “the love that moves the sun and other stars” or, as Eric Jansch put it, evolution is self-organization through self-transcendence. [1:25 hr]

More sophisticated evolutionists like David Sloan Wilson have better ideas about the domains in which evolution is operating. Wilson, joining us at this same conference, points out the standard requirements of Darwinian evolution [Wilber then recounts basic principles of standard Darwinian evolution and continues] but then Wilson points out that these processes must apply not to just genetic evolution but also apply to epigenetics and to social evolution, by which he also means cultural evolution and symbolic thought—in other words, all four quadrants.

More important even then whether evolution is rather primarily agentic, or altruistic, is– in my opinion– that the fact that it is occurring in all these domains, all four quadrants. And agentic and altruistic evolution is occurring in all these domains—all four quadrants. This is a monumental shift—truly profound.

Now, if I can focus on my version of the mechanism for this. It is an elaboration of Whitehead’s view of ongoing experience, which he called “prehension” and I call “tetraprehension”—that it is going on in all four quadrants. “Tetraprehension”, or a prehension simultaneously occurring in all four quadrants. Prehension was the term Whitehead used to mean proto-awareness or proto-feeling that’s present in all phenomena, in all phenomena all the way down to quarks and strings and atoms.

Each moment arises as a subject of experience, a drop of awareness and, as it comes to be, it is aware of, or prehends, the previous moment.

This previous moment, which was itself a subject, is thus made an object of the newly arising subject. The new subject feels the previous moment, thus including or enfolding it. It has its own makeup but then it also adds its own bit of novelty, or newness, to the previous moment. This newness is a creative movement, or a movement of “eros”, or whatever term one prefers.

When the phenomenon is very simple, say a quark or a proton, the amount of newness is very small, so it appears almost as if it is a kind of strict determinism or strict causality is at work, and much of the physical realm appears this way. [1:28 hr]

A good astronomer can tell you where Jupiter will be a thousand years from now, barring accidents, but a good biologist can’t tell you where a dog will be a minute from now. The dog, being more complex and with more awareness brings more newness and more novelty to the moment and thus its actions are very hard to predict. It has more freedom. And so, as a new subject comes to be, and prehends the previous subject as object, it adds a bit of newness and creativity and this shows up in the degree of freedom that it has. [1:30 hr]

So, each moment “transcends and includes” its predecessor if it is to be passed on. The “include” part is the prehension of the past which is where the present moment prehends the previous moment — and actually embraces it, or enfolds it, which is how the past has an influence on the present. That’s causality. The past is actually included in and taken up in the present, so of course it’s affecting it.

But that influence is not a strict determinism because the present also transcends the past, transcends its inheritance, transcends its causality (to some degree) by adding its own newness or novelty, or creativity, or novelty. Whitehead suggested three universal ultimates— “the One”, “the Many”, and “The Creative Advance into Novelty”. And that creative advance– that makes order of chaos, that eros— is an inherent aspect of existence itself. It is crucial for evolution.

The orthodox scientific view is that newness comes from a mere chance, random mutation in genetic material, that is, it’s nothing but an accident and the universe is winding down. But as we have seen, the universe is winding up. And, this inherent creative advance into novelty is why. It’s built into the universe itself; it’s not an accident slamming into it. It is an inherent part of it.

Now, as a new subject comes into being and transcends and includes the previous subject, making it an object, that new subject has to match with existing realities in all four quadrants. Remember, the four quadrants are the actual realities that the new phenomenon is met with.

So, in the exterior collective — or social and environmental quadrant– the new subject has to survive, has to fit in with its environment, in a way that allows it to move forward. If it doesn’t fit in with its environment it will cease to exist; it will go extinct.

So there has to some kind of functional fit, and conventional natural selection is simply just one of those forms. So it is important, but the same thing is happening in the interior quadrants as well.

As a new cultural phenomenon comes into being, a new intersubjectivity making the previous moment an inner objectivity, it too has to fit with its various surroundings, has to fit its cultural surroundings. If it does it will survive. If it has exceptional new qualities that help its existence flourish, then that cultural phenomena will become even more widespread. This is a selection process just like natural selection in the exterior collective but this is a selection happening in the interior collective–happening with cultural learning. And likewise with the interior of the individual, or what David Sloan Wilson calls “symbolic meaning systems”.

If a mental phenomenon comes into being and it smoothly fits with its interior surroundings, it will move forward, while also adding its own degree of novelty, or creativity or newness. It this phenomenon had qualities that allow it to not just exist but to flourish, then its influence in the mind will increase. If these are pallid, this influence will be minor. If it doesn’t fit at all, it will be rendered extinct almost immediately.

But in all cases, a phenomenon in any of the four quadrants must transcend and include the new subject – must include the previous subject– by prehending it, by enfolding it, by feeling it and making it an object. But it must also transcend the old subject by adding a degree of novelty, newness, or creativity and this happens in all four quadrants.

In this way, evolution, or “eros”, or “spirit in action”, continues to build more and more order out of more and more chaos and drives the universe from dust to deity—that is, the awakening in all four quadrants to ever more inclusive realities.

The fact that this happened in all four quadrants means it will also happen in the “I” dimension and in the “We” dimension”. Development in the “I” dimension drives an individual’s identity to an ever and ever greater embrace– from an ego-centric identity of only “I”, to a group identity of an ethnocentric “Us”, to a world-centric “all of us”. A cultural “We” dimension drives increasing unity of ethical awareness, goodness and altruism: from pre-conventional, to conventional, to post-conventional, to integral; from clan to tribe, to empire, to international nation state, to global commons.

This is also true of the movement “Interspirituality”. Interspirituality is not something that could have occurred 2000 years ago. The “We” dimension had not yet grown to global dimensions and thus could not embrace all of the world’s religions the way awareness can do so today. The interspiritual and integral movements, as David Sloan Wilson has pointed out, are fully compatible with a saner view of evolution. This view of evolution also allows for evolution to occur, and in my view even if sexual reproduction is not present. After the Big Bang, for example, where there only quarks and early atoms available and these phenomena had very little creativity, and thus they were inherited or determined by their succeeding moments. They included them easily but only minisculely transcended them.

The universe appeared as a nearly, but not really, deterministic mechanistic process; but over the millennia, atoms continued moving forward and transcending and including and, at some point, the cumulative transcendence led to atoms coming together to form molecules, as significant creativity, a major transcendence and more higher unity. So, molecules transcended and included atoms, which transcended and included quarks. Numerous millennia later, a group of very large molecules were hanging out together and suddenly a higher form of self-organization, a cell walled, formed around them and a living cell emerged, a staggering leap of creativity, of self organization, or eros in action.

And that cell transcended and included the previous molecules as it began its life of evolutionary unfolding to yet higher unities. Only considerably down the road did all of this evolutionary unfolding bring sex into the scene and then, fitting with the previous four quadrants meant there was also a struggle for survival. And so, in some cases, a more standard Darwinian evolution began to operative alongside with evolution still occurring in the other quadrants, including mental and cultural.

But even today sexual reproduction is not necessary for evolution to occur. From Einstein to Hawken brilliant mental phenomenon are passed forward, flourishing in their symbolic and cultural environments and this extraordinary transcend and include continued bringing creativity into the cosmos as higher and higher more and more whole, and more and more unified, more and move loving and moral and caring entities emerge and evolve in this universe. Once a particular phenomenon emerges it, tends to remain in existence precisely because it is often carried forward as an ingredient in the next higher phenomenon. Thus, organisms transcend and include cells, cells transcend and include molecules, which transcend and include atoms, which transcend include quarks.

The same is true of the stages of Consciousness in the process of growing up. Magic transcends and includes Archaic, Mythic transcends and includes Magic, Rational transcends and includes Mythic, and so on.

Likewise with states. As Robert Kegan summarizes human development: “ I know of no better way to describe development than that the subject of one stage becomes the object of the subject of the next stage.” In other words the identical “transcend and include”, or prehension, that we saw operating at the very early level of evolution. This extraordinary universe is a creating fountain of ever increasing wholeness. As we noted, Whitehead said there are there ultimates: the One, the Many and the Creative Advance into Novelty. That creative advance, that eros, that self-organization, that spirit in action, is what has brought us to this integral age now starting to unfold globally, and to the new movements of interspirituality, to increasing capacity for altruism, and love, and care and concern.

Every major study of love has shown that it expands and increases with every major level of development from selfish “me only”, to small love to large group love, to love of all groups or love of all humanity, to love of all beings. In other words, evolution and love go hand in hand, an example of spirit in action if ever there was one.

In Darwin’s major book on the function of evolution in humans, The Descent of Man, the index has only two references to “survival of the fittest”. It has 92 references to “moral sensitivity” and 95 references to “love”; and, he felt these were actually the higher drives to selection in human evolution, not survival of the fittest. Or, the way integral meta-theory would put it, survival is indeed central to evolution but survival is different in every quadrant. Love and moral sensitivity are survival processes in the collective interior. The more we love the more we flourish, the more morally sensitive we are the wider our own circle of identity, going from an isolated individual “me” to a group of humans,(an “us”), to all humans (or “all of us”), and from there to all sentient beings and then the universe itself en toto—a supreme identity with the ground of all being.

This is where evolution is taking us, driven by the self-organizing unity, that eros, that spirit in action, the love that moves the sun and other stars. Looking out at that extraordinarily complex, beautiful, wondrous universe out there, how could we ever doubt it?


[15] Wilber, Ken. A Brief History of Everything, 2nd edition. p. 96–109