Are you one with that beer can? – an argument for nondual perception of reality

I had came up with this idea when reading the Brief history of everything by Ken Wilber.

Firstly, I am going to introduce an hierarchical (or holarchical, holarchy is a nested hierarcy) “core self -environment continuum model” (couldn’t come up with a better name, sorry!)  which is a rough model of how reality is organized in the individual-interior (see Wilber’s four quadrant model of reality). The model is about individual-interior, i.e. relates primarily to the subjective experienced reality that is phenomenological, not empirical in nature. In other words, it attempts the describe the things a subject experiences them as opposed to things that can be observed from outside. So this is more a philosophical text than a neuroscience text.

Secondly, in the context of this model, I am going to argue for nondual perception of reality (there is no distinction between the self and the “outer” reality).

Core self – environment continuum model

In this model, there is a continuum from our core self to the “outer” reality or environment. In the order of increasing distance to the core of the self, the components of the model are:

observing self <-> mind <-> body <-> environment

In this model, at the core of reality experience is the observing self (the witness, the Buddha nature, etc etc). This is in accordance with the teachings of most of the ancient and modern spiritual teachers. For example, Tolle writes:

“I am not my thoughts, emotions, sense perceptions, and experiences. I am not the content of my life. I am Life. I am the space in which all things happen. I am consciousness”, from Eckhart Tolle, Stillness Speaks (2003)

The idea in the model is that the four components – observing self, mind, body, environment – interact and interface hierarchically (or holarchically).

Observing self has an input-output relationship (an interface) only with the mind. This means observing self can interact with the body only via the mind. Example: if I want to raise my hand, I need to activate some processes (plan the motor sequence and give order for execution etc) in the mind to enable me to actually raise the hand. The idea is that the observing self cannot directly interface with the body.

Similarly, mind has input-output relationship (an interface) with the body (but not directly with the environment) and the body has an interface with the environment.

I am not sure if I can make a good argument for the four categories, observing self – mind – body – environment, based on solely phenomenological subjective experience (individual-interior), that is, in this case introspection. From the view point of empirically observable correlates of observing self – mind – body – environment, the argument for these categories and the interfaces in-between could be probably made easier. In any case, here is the argument for the four categories based on phenomenological subjective experience: Observing self is the part of reality-experience that does not change. Mind is all the experiences and forms that appear. Body is something I experience with either or both of two qualities 1) I can control it (interact with) directly 2) it can directly affect my experience (i.e. sensations). Environment is something I experience conditional to my body.

Argument for nondual perception of reality

The common view of reality is dual in the sense that there is me and then there is the outer reality. Me is usually composed of body and the mind. “I have this body that I can move and feel. I also have a mind where some emotions, experiences, meanings, thoughts come and go.” In this view reality, the self-sense has not yet differentiated mind and observing self, in the sense of the above Tolle quote. If we differentiate them we get: me = body + mind + observing self.

In the dual model of reality, in addition to “me”, there is the “outer” reality, the environment. There is a dividing line between me and the environment. It seems to me that this is arbitrary.

In the context of the “core self – environment continuum model” here, dual perception of reality means that there is something special in the interface that separates body from environment that is not found in the other interfaces.

Let’s take an object in the environment, for example a can of beer. The dual perception of reality says I am separate from that can of beer. The only reason I can think why somebody would state that the can of beer separate from me is that I cannot directly influence or interact with the can in the same way I can directly influence or interact with my hand for example. In other words, I need to use my body to interact with that can.

But in the same way, I need to use my mind to interface with my body. So by the same logic, in the context of the model here

observing self <-> mind <-> body <-> environment,

it follows that I am separate from my body.

Thus, because there is no difference in the quality of the interface mind<->body and body<->environment, there is no reason to arbitrary draw the line of self between the body and the environment.

In conclusion, if the “core self – environment continuum model” is any good description of reality experience in the individual-interior (the subjective reality experience), there is no grounds for having a dual self-sense which separates me from my surroundings.

Notes: Brief History of Everything by Ken Wilber – chapters 3 and 4

This post is about the chapters 3 All too Human and 4 Great Postmodern revolution.

Previous chapters covered evolution up to the emergence of human beings (evolution from physiospher to biosphere to noosphere). This chapter starts to discuss the evolution of human consciousness (noosphere). By this Wilber means evolution in “worldviews”.

Wilber outlines predominant “worldviews” in epochs of human development and correlates them with major stages of technological/economic development. Wilber defines worldview as a way of looking at the world. Later in the book: “A worldview, as we were saying, is what the Kosmos looks like from a particular rung of consciousness. ”

He argues and carefully states that there is not a single pregiven world, and we simply look at it differently but actually as worldviews change and emerge actually new worlds are created:

“This might seem to be splitting hairs, but it really is very important: it’s not that there is a single, pregiven world, and we simply look at it differently. Rather, as the Kosmos comes to know itself more fully, different worlds emerge. It’s like an acorn growing to an oak. An oak isn’t a different picture of the same unchanging world present in the acorn. The oak has components in its own being that are quite new and different from anything found in the acorn. The oak has leaves, branches, roots, and so on, none of which are present in the acorn’s actual “worldview” or “worldspace.” Different worldviews create different worlds, enact different worlds, they aren’t just the same world seen differently. “

I like this point. It emphasizes evolution, development or change in noosphere (or in the realm of ideas) in addition to physiosphere and biosphere. It points to the evolution in interior reality, conciousness, realm of experiences, shared realities and culture (left-hand quadrants in AQAL model).

worldview ”rung” of consciousness Economic/technological stage of society
archaic Sensations and impulses foraging: hunting and gathering, small foraging tribes


magic Images and symbols horticultural: farming culture based on hoe/simple digging stick


mythic rules and roles agrarian: farming culture based on animal-drawn plow, 4000-2000BCE onwards, some specialization


rational formal operational thinking industrial
existential “vision-logic” informational

I find value in the Wilber’s assesment of development of worldviews. It is harder to assess the validity of the various claims about the correlation to “rungs” of consciousness or stages of economic/technological development. My hunch at this point would be that they are overarching generalizations painted with a broad brush which have some value.

Wilber writes about the fundamental paradigm in Enlightment which he states is the representation paradigm which has basically two axioms

  1. Separation between self/subject and empirical/sensory world
  2. All valid knowledge consists in making maps of the empirical/sensory/objective world

Wilber argues this is very limited because the paradigm leaves out the mapmaker. Post-enlightenment or postmodern scholars (Heidigger, Focault, Derrida etc) were the ones who assaulted the representation paradigm. According to Wilber, mapmaker is important to take in to account because it has own characteristics and history affect the mapmaking (what is seen, can be seen). Mapmaker/subject is situated in contexts and currents of its own development, its history. The map depends as much on the “empirical world” as much on this history.

The representation paradigm underlies scientific method. Three most important general principles of scientific method are 1) systematic empiricism or structured observations, 2) knowledge is publicly verifiable, replication, peer review (community of mapmakers, not just one individual and one history) and 3) seek problems that are empirically solvable and that yield testable theories, i.e. theories must be falsifiable (study only maps that can be tested by empirical observation). [1]

I am not sure how the mapmaker affects research in hard sciences, for example in physics. I would imagine an alien species would develop very much the same theories of physics as us. In qualitative research, the mapmaker has a more important role I think. The fact that there is a community of mapmakers (the scientific community) decreases the effect of single mapmaker history/perspective to the map. But community history and context still affects the research: how research is done, the results of research and what is researched.

“Yes. And the overall idea that worldviews develop—that neither the world nor the self is simply pregiven—that is the great postmodern discovery. ”

“And at each stage of development the world looks different because the world is different—and there is the great postmodern revelation. “

In my understanding ,the advance from representation paradigm (neutral mapmaker makes maps out of empirical world) is that mapmaker with a perspective and history (worldview) maps out the empirical world.

There is development both in maps and perspectives. Map is affected by the perspective and perspective is affected by the map. Also what is mapped is greatly influenced by the history and the perspective of the mapmaker.

Wilber notes that in growth, in transcendence there is a possibility of repression of earlier levels of development, earlier truths instead of inclusion:

“Wherever there is the possibility of transcendence, there is, by the very same token, the possibility of repression. The higher might not just transcend and include, it might transcend and repress, exclude, alienate, dissociate. “

Wilber’s example is that in our rational-industrial societies many of us have become dissociated from or repressed the truths of earlier worldviews, like the fact that we are part of the biosphere and part of the nature on Earth which was more evident in earlier societies (e.g archaic-foraging).

[1] How to Think Straight About Psychology, Keith Stanovich

Notes: Brief History of Everything by Ken Wilber – Chapter 2 “The Secret Impulse”

This post is about the chapter 2 The secret impulse.

Wilber argues that evolution in holons proceeds by a process of transcend and include.

“A molecule transcends and includes atoms. Transcends, in that it has certain emergent or novel or creative properties that are not merely the sum of its components. This is the whole point of systems theory and holism in general, that new levels of organization come into being, and these new levels cannot be reduced in all ways to their junior dimensions—they transcend them. But they also include them, because the junior holons are nonetheless components of the new holon. So, transcends and includes.


Well, take any evolutionary development, say, atoms to molecules to cells to organisms. This is a sequence of increasing wholeness, increasing holons, each of which transcends and includes its predecessor. Now if, in a type of thought experiment, you “destroy” any particular type of holon, then all of the higher holons will also be destroyed, but none of the lower holons will be destroyed. “

According to Wilber evolution in whatever medium is a process where new (“higher” in the sense that they depend on their predecessors) holons emerge as in a process of inclusion of pre-existing set of holons to new holon which also transcends the subholons in some way.

I like this idea and perspective on evolution. I also like the emphasis on inclusion in addition to transcendence. I think evolution is often thought to mean transcendence, and what came before, the history, which enables the new thing/holon is often forgotten.

Wilber describes a sequence of evolution toward higher wholeness from physiosphere (matter) to biosphere (life) to noosphere (minds).

Depth, span and holarchies

Number of levels in any holarchy is referred to as its depth. Number of holons in any given level is referred to as its span.

Definition of levels is in part arbitrary – it depends on how you define levels. Despite this it is possible to make comparisons of depth: greater depth means greater depth in all possible definitions or scales of levels.

According to Wilber (and Ervin Laszlo who he is referring to), evolution produces greater depth and less span on succeeding levels. This means number of holons in higher levels is lower than in lower levels (tenet 8).

(Figure 2-2 from Ken Wilber’s Brief History of Everything)

Wilber argues that the highest level in holarchy is the spirit. It transcends all and includes all. I think the number of holons in that level needs to be one, because it is the highest level: i.e. has smallest span and greatest depth. Wilber says that “[spirit] is both the Goal and the Ground of the entire sequence”.

I think defining spirit as the ultimate whole contradicts with what Wilber said in earlier chapter “Pattern that connects”. There he says eveything is composed of holons, and:

“Q: And [Holons] all the way up, as you say. We never come to an ultimate Whole.

KW: That’s right. There is no whole that isn’t also simultaneously a part of some other whole, indefinitely,  unendingly. Time goes on, and today’s wholes are tomorrow’s parts…”

If spirit is the ultimate holon/whole and transcends all and includes all, what whole is it a part of? If it is not part also, it is not a holon, it is just a whole. One could try to postulate some circular structure – which I think Wilber, using poetic and imprecise language, could hint to here, for example he writes: “So Spirit is both the highest ‘level’ in the holarchy, but it’s also the paper on which the entire holarchy is written. ” So in this line of argument, the spirit, in addition to being the ultimate whole, is also the smallest constituent part of cosmos also, so everything from subatomic particles would be composed of spirit. In that case, spirit would both be highest level of holarchy and lowest level of holarchy. And thus it would have the smallest span (1?) and greatest span (infinity?) which would be contradiction. Doesn’t sound so convincing.

Wilber argues evolution has a direction: towards greater depth.

“Evolution has a direction, yes, a principle of order out of chaos, as it is commonly phrased. In other words, a drive toward greater depth. Chance is defeated, depth emerges—the intrinsic value of the Kosmos increases with each unfolding. “

Wilber also says greater the degree of depth, greater the degree of its consciousness. “Consciousness and depth are synonymous”. I think tying depth (number of levels in holarchy) is quite arbitrary. Molecules have more consciousness than atoms?

Wilber writes “Consciousness is simply what depth looks like from the inside, from within. ” I like this, even though the concept of consciousness is not very precisely defined here.

The chapter ends with pages of very poetic and inspiring text about how evolution in general and individual’s evolution is about touching the infinity, Kosmic consciousness, the spirit.

Notes: Brief History of Everything by Ken Wilber – Chapter 1 “Pattern that connects”

This post is only about the chapter 1 Pattern that connects.


Wilber divides the reality, in his words Kosmos (as opposed to cosmos which refers only to the physical reality), to physiosphere (cosmos, i.e physical matter), biosphere (i think this everything living), noosphere (domain of the mind, thoughts,concepts, etc) and theosphere (divine domain).

My question is: what about software etc. , i.e. silicon-based “constructs”? I think there is an analogy between: biological life (biosphere) gives rise to mind (noosphere) and hardware gives rise software.

First tenet: Kosmos is composed of holons

In the book, Wilber introduces some of his tenets, rules etc, about how the Kosmos works. First tenet is: Kosmos is composed of holons. Holons is a concept created by Arthur Koestler. Holon is something that is at the same time a whole in itself and a part (whole/part examples: atom/molecule, human individual/ community). Wilber writes

“So the first tenet says that reality is composed neither of things nor processes, neither wholes nor parts, but whole/parts, or holons—all the way up, all the way down. “

I really like the concept of holon, and the perspective it opens: instead of just looking at a thing, always look at the whole it is a part of. I like the concept because this pertains not only to the physical universe but also for example to our experiences, thoughts and concepts.

How would one go about proving or falsifying the Tenet 1? A counter-example would suffice to falsify the tenet. How about for example, the Planck lenght in quantum theory (smallest unit of length, in some quantum theories at least). It is not established that Planck lenght is the smallest unit of length because it is not clear which theory is right. However, concepts like Planck length point to the possiblity that there is a smallest physical size that cannot be divided (nobody believed that there is an upper limit to speed but there is as Einstein proved).

In any case, I find tenet 1 fruitful way to look at things.

Second tenet: Each holon has four tendencies or capacities or drives (Wilber uses all of these terms): drive for agency, communion, transcendence and dissolution

Drive for agency and communion
Wilber calls drives for agency and communion vertical drives. These drives are motivated by the fact that every holon is a whole/part: to “survive” it needs to maintain both its wholeness and partness. Drive for agency means that every holon seeks to maintain its own wholeness, identity, autonomy, agency. Drive for communion means that holons seeks to remain a part of whole, i.e. to fit in in its community or surroundings.

I think these are both sort of abstract survival drives. Holon seeks to maintain itself as a separate entity, failure would mean it ceases to exist. Holon seeks to be succesfully a part of whole, to fit in because it needs to fit in to survive.

It is not clear for me these drives actually exist. What it means to have a drive? Does a coffee cup have a drive to be coffee cup, or a drive to be a part of a serving or whatever whole we look at?

Drive for transcendence and dissolution
Two other drives, drive for transcendence and dissolution, are what Wilber calls vertical drives. Drive for dissolulution means drive of a holon to break down to its subholons. In the book, Wilber uses the term “capacity” for dissolution instead of drive. So is it a drive or a capacity? Isn’t a drive for dissolution contradictory to drives for agency and communion (the “survival” drives)? What sense does it make to postulate a drive for maintaining itself and a drive for self-destruction at the same time?

Drive for transcendence means drive to build up new more complex holons (like molecules forming living cells). I am not sure why holons would have this drive. Wilber argues basically that because evolution produces minds out of life and life out of matter, “drive for self-transcendence seems to be built on the very fabric of Kosmos itself”.

In particular, Wilber argues that something almost miraculous needed to happen for wings or eyeballs to evolve. This is then used to support the drive of holons to self-transcend. The view that something nearly miraculous needs to happen for complex adaptations like wings or eyeballs to evolve seems fallacious to me. It is just “normal evolution”. For instance, eye has evolved independently 50-100 times.

In his article, Frank Visser clearly shows that Wilbers understanding of Darwinian evolution is deeply flawed.

I am not convinced that holons have innate drive for transcendence.

Tenet 3: holons emerge

This tenet simply says that new holons creatively emerge.

Wilber argues chance cannot explain what is going on in the Kosmos/universe because in 12 billion years only so man chance mutations can take place:

“Calculations done by scientists from Fred Hoyle to F. B. Salisbury consistently show that twelve billion years isn’t even enough to produce a single enzyme by chance. “

This seems to be weak argument against traditional Darwinian evolution refuted by Dawkins and others. See for example Frank Visser’s article

Tenet 4: holons emerge holarchically

Holarchy is Koestler’s term for natural hierarchy composed of holons. Whole of a lower level comes a part of another:

“A natural hierarchy is simply an order of increasing wholeness, such as: particles to atoms to cells to organisms, or letters to words to sentences to paragraphs. The whole of one level becomes a part of the whole of the next.”

I like the concept of holarchy. And I think assuming that everything is composed of holons (tenet 1), it means everything is organized to holarchies. I.e everything is composed of parts, everything is a part of a whole and a whole unto itself.

Wilber equates the terms holarchy and natural hierarchy [in other places growth hierarchy] and contrasts them with dominator hierarchies. In dominator hierarchies, one holon tries to dominate the whole or other holons at the same level, i.e rise above its position. Dominator hierarchy is based on oppression (example caste system), holarchy or growth hierarchy are based on inclusion and transcendence.

Tenet 5: each emergent holon transcends but includes its predecessor(s)

This means holon includes all its parts but in itself is more than just its parts, i.e. it transcends its parts:

“The point is that since all holons are whole/parts, the wholeness transcends but the parts are included. In this transcendence, heaps are converted into wholes; in the inclusion, the parts are equally embraced and cherished, linked in a commonality and a shared space that relieves each of the burden of being a fragment. And so yes, evolution is a process of transcend and include, transcend and include. And this begins to open onto the very heart of Spirit-in-action, the very secret of the evolutionary impulse.”

I very much like the idea of evolution/growth as process of transcend and include (or include and transcend). Everything new is built on something that came before. Point I get here myself is that sustainable growth can happen when the predecessors, that which came before, is included (not rejected) and embraced in the novelty that was born (transcendence).