Rationalists should meet Integral Theory

by Elo3 min read4th Jun 202118 comments

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Around 2018 I was actively posting in the rationalist community, I still run the lesswrong slack and I still keep an ear out for things that are going on in the rationality community.  But that’s around the time that something changed for me.

I felt like I was fairly stable in my rationality.  I had read the sequences, Superforecasters, How to measure anything, Atomic habits and more (2017 book list which continued to be quite long each year since), but there were still plenty of problems in my life.  I had already started researching in the slightly more unusual self help territory, with my general slogan for my behaviour switching from, “is there evidence behind it” to a more general, “well if it works”...

My reading habits were in the categories of business, productivity, relationships, psychology and a little bit of philosophy.  And eventually I stumbled upon “integral theory”.  Doing what I usually do, I picked up books on the topic and devoured them.  Integral theory was funny because it didn’t make sense to me.  This was significant because I considered myself some kind of goddamn genius, reading textbooks for fun and arguing with the smartest people I could find.  But something was wrong here.  Integral theory was not wrong, and it was not yet right either.  It was a giant floating theory that I was building in my head and it didn’t map to reality yet.

As a group organiser myself - my local rationality community (dojos and socials), I did what I do, and I looked up and found the local sydney integral community.  When I met them, they definitely weren’t keenly rational being but they were very friendly and welcoming.  They were patient, understanding and listened to myself and each other in ways that surprised me.  Despite me not knowing integral theory yet, I was joyous and willing to participate because they were so welcoming.

Here is where my journey usually turns off rationalists from a “don’t get sucked into cults” perspective.  I went on a retreat (5 days long).  I guess it was similar to CFAR however this one was with a focus on personal development.  I heard about it late, and there was a discount on the last ticket.  The retreat turned out to be an intensive experience with 10 participants and 2 facilitators.  

The retreat story is a whole different story but the important part is that suddenly on day 3 of the retreat, integral theory made sense.  The missing piece that I was needing, suddenly fitted in, and integral theory made sense. (more on that in another post)

That moment was definitely the start of the decay of my ability to communicate clearly.  Within a week, my friends on the slack had freaked out at me, my friends at home had freaked out at me, and it became clear to me that I was having communication difficulties.  After the retreat, I came home with what I would call “strong mindfulness” from a meditative perspective.  I also had a problem where I couldn't speak so well to what I was experiencing.  The words didn't quite point to what I intended them to.

I did what I usually do and I contacted a whole bunch of my friends and became incredibly social.  I dropped myself deep into kagan stage 3 - social relational development.  As well as starting to devour books on meditation in an attempt to catch up on what I was missing.  

My book habits turned to psychology, adult development, business leadership, meditation, therapy and spirituality.

It was here in the books about therapy and meditation that I branched into the weird hippie community.  I joined strange dancing groups, and attended a variety of meditation events until I did a whole bunch of self work to get my personal “stuff” more under control.

Turns out that when we talk about the lens that sees it’s flaws, the mind is itself a very biased machine.  But biased in ways that can be improved through meditation, reflection, and other esoteric practices, we can train the parts of the mind to work together in a more integrated way.

Eventually my gibberish subsided and my communication skills improved to such a point where I get very excited when I can’t understand something because I obnoxiously think I’m that good these days that moments of non-understanding point me to people either lying to me or trying to trick me.

I kept working on my person, on my psyche, developing, processing, tidying, coming to peace with… I already had my cognitive faculty well trained, but rationality never trained my emotional capacity.  I worked on my emotional capacity until I had the confidence to visit any emotional state without being stuck there.  Suddenly my ability to get done what I need to get done, is greatly increased because the emotional baggage of the things I want to do, no longer tie me up.  Which left me with my sensation substrate, the subtle sensations in the body on top of which everything else rests.  I’ve been cleaning that up, and I’ve now come far enough along the journey of clearing out my physical sensations that reality is appearing different to me now.

Now I have more space in my mind.  I have more peace, I have generally positive sentiment to my days, my time, and to everyone I meet.  I have curiosity, I have freedom of mind and most importantly, all of these capacities are not accidental.  I haven’t hit a “good day” and been able to work clearly, I’ve worked my way into a good and clear life.  It’s consistent, every day is a good day.  Every day is a rewarding day.  Every day is an exciting day.

With my time now I work in property, crypto and life coaching, and when I’m not doing that, I host discussion groups, run my rationality group, meditate and have an awesome time.  It’s very easy to coach people when I can now see through their problems like never before (which is a bold claim).

I hope to elaborate in the future on my stepping stones, but some of the resources I have accessed are:

The best starting resource I can recommend on integral theory is http://www.kenwilber.com/Writings/PDF/IntroductiontotheIntegralApproach_GENERAL_2005_NN.pdf followed by the book, “integral spirituality” which somehow was more about psychology than about spirituality.

I am slightly biased here in this post because not only do rationalists need integral, integralists need rationality. And I hope the two mix.

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18 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 6:09 PM
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I would be surprised if anyone reading this post who doesn't already know what integral theory happens to be would understand what it is after reading this post. It's a bit confusing to me that your post speaks about meeting integral theory and then list a bunch of things as stepping stones that were created independently of the integral community like Non-Violent communication, Internal Family system and Circling.

I would be happy to read post from you that are more about specific concepts and insights. 

As far as reading lists go, those google doc lists aren't very helpful to an outsider as they are a bunch of book names without any sense of which books you read where helpful and which weren't. Goodreads is much better. With it's book ratings and the ability to watch the ratings of multiple rationalist at the same time is much superior to the google docs approach. 

Agreed, I think this post would be much strengthened if it would include some kind of a summary of Integral Theory's main claims and some brief discussion of why Elo thinks they're correct.

I'm in the same boat. I agree with the title of this post (I wrote this whole post about Integral Spirituality) but didn't find this post particularly useful since it's a personal story without a lot of clear takeaways. In my mind this just isn't frontpage worthy, but great for personal on LW.

Hi Elo! I'm diagnosed with bipolar (type I), and I have to say that from my perspective, what you're describing sounds like a manic or hypomanic episode. It's quite common for them to be triggered on an intensive retreat or when engaging with new ideas or creative stimulation, both of which seem present. They're also more common in the spring, and yes, among highly intelligent people.  

Warning signs: 

- Things "suddenly starting to make sense" - very classic
- Communication difficulties - sometimes people are not able to speak coherent words, or they speak too quickly with pressure of speech, or can't translate their knowledge into words. 
- Becoming incredibly social is almost always present in a manic episode, and it certainly is for me. 
- Developing extremely high confidence ("I obnoxiously think 'I'm that good' these days"). Note Waddington's comment on how you sound like a typical "I'm a prophet" enlightened person after a psychedelic trip 
- Paranoia - "moments of non-understanding point me to people either lying to me or trying to trick me"
- Taking on many different new tasks or new activities (reading lots of books, joining strange dancing groups and various meditation events)
- Suddenly and voraciously taking an interest in learning many new things - sudden spiritual and religious interests are common themes 
- Every day being a great or exciting day -- this is what it feels like to be manic for me, 100%. I had a lot of peaceful happy days too - mania doesn't mean every day is full of frenzic or active energy.  
- As the top commenter ChristianKI says, your post is a little confusing. The tenses do not always match, and overall the content doesn't seem to flesh out what the title suggests it will. The post seems to lack an awareness of how it will be perceived by others, which is probably a good chunk of why a lot of people aren't engaging very positively with it. This muted or diminished sense of how others perceive one's actions or words leads to some of the most trouble in mania and is probably one of the most difficult aspects to deal with
------

For the record, all this doesn't mean you haven't had true and useful insight or a lot of your progress isn't real (I wish people knew this more about manic episodes), but if you are having a manic episode, you should be much more careful about any conclusions you're drawing. I'm not a professional and nobody can diagnose you over a single post, but I know quite a few bipolar people and of course, I have my own experiences to draw upon. I have made perhaps two comments on the forum ever but your post so strongly suggested mania that I felt compelled to write this long comment.

I highly recommend you limit the number of people you're talking to and public posts you make, and don't make any long-term decisions or spend money on anything you wouldn't have pre-retreat until you've spoken to a trained medical professional. I've heard that EA therapist Ewelina Tur has been helpful and there's a more general EA therapy list here

Feel free to pm me if you want to talk about this more!

PS: I don't necessarily endorse academic psychology's current conceptualization of "bipolar" - I am exploring a more useful isomorphism with a more spiritual framework, but for the moment, for my purpose here, I think you should strongly consider the possibility that you are having a manic episode using that clinical framework.

This comment is going to sound mean. Just a fair warning.

This strikes me as a classic case of a guy thinking he's a prophet after doing a bunch of psychedelics. I've seen it over and over again. They are so convinced that they've "got it" that they often manage to convince others they do as well. You could call it the Messiah complex because, well, duh.

And you know what? Being around a bunch of people who are really nice to you feels good. And that feeling of it "clicking" is the feeling of your cognitive dissonance being wiped out by highly motivated reasoning. They're a bunch of loons, but I feel like I belong with them. I'm a genius, so if I belong with them they must be a bunch of geniuses as well. Oh! We're a bunch of geniuses! The Weird Spiritual Teachings are true!

Many incredibly smart scientists in Japan joined a doomsday cult (Aum Shinrikyo) because its members made them feel like they finally belonged somewhere. Loneliness is a hell of a drug. It's what gets you sucked into cults.

From what I've read, integral theory seems to be closer to a mysticist cult than a scientific framework. And I say this as someone who is quite open to process philosophy and systems science, both of which seem vaguely related to whatever integral theory is trying to be.

I read the PDF, and if this is a map, as it claims to be, it looks to me like a fantasy map of an imaginary world. But I look forward to reading whatever more you have to say about this to this audience.

BTW, the Google Doc "Book lists" that you linked is private. (now fixed)

BTW2, I actually upvoted this post. The downvoting isn't mine.

ETA: On reflection, I have withdrawn the upvote.

I've now read/watched a few of the sources linked to. The whole thing is pure story-telling. Not once does anyone talk about evidence. No-one talks about whether any of this is true. No-one talks about what any of this is useful for. No-one even talks about where all this stuff came from. I found a video of Ken Wilbur himself talking continuously for one and a half hours, and while I'm awestruck at the ability to do so, I am not at all awestruck by the content of it. I did not watch the whole thing, but I watched enough to decide not to.

Ken Wilbur may not be the official head of the movement, but he is its founder, source and at least unofficial guru. As the guru, so the school. I hear them talk and talk, while waiting for some sort of a point, but it never arrives.

No-one even talks about where all this stuff came from. 

A lot of it does have articulated sources even when they aren't articulated in the particular talks you watched. Spiral Dynamics for example comes from Don Edward Beck / Christopher Cowan.

I think Mark Mansan wrote The Rise and Fall of Ken Wilber in which he describes the problem as:

Instead, most conversations involved esoteric spiritual topics, impulsive self-expressionism, and re-explaining the integral model in 4,102 different ways. For a philosophy based on including and integrating as much as possible, its followers sure expressed it by forming a nicely-sealed bubble around themselves.

[...]

Well, a number of experts began questioning Wilber’s choice of sources. And as for the claims that what he portrayed as consensus in some fields such as developmental psychology or sociology, it turned out there was still quite a bit of debate and uncertainty around some of Wilber’s “basic” conclusions. Often, what Wilber portrayed as the “consensus” of a certain field actually amounted to an obscure or minority position.

[...]

Wilber’s eventual response to many of these critics was nothing short of childish—a dozen-or-so page (albeit extremely well-written) verbal shit storm that clarified nothing, justified nothing, personally attacked everyone, and straw-manned the shit out of his critics’ claims.

Yet Mark Manson still says:

I do believe he will be written about decades or centuries from now and will be seen as one of the most brilliant minds of our generation. But as with most brilliant thinkers, his influence and ideas will be carried on by others in ways which he did not anticipate or intend.

The Circling guide says about the current state of Integral:

Circling did not begin as an outgrowth of Ken Wilber’s integral world-view, which includes the AQAL (All Quadrants / All Levels) theory of human development. However, it is a perfect fit, and has been embraced by many integral communities, particularly the Boulder Integral Center in which Circling is the leading modality being taught. 

[...]

Circling has moved integral theory from the position of being merely a “good idea” of uncertain applicability to world problems and even early errors and hubris (Google Mark Manson’s article The Rise And Fall of Ken Wilber for an entertaining account of the early days of integral theory), into the position of being one of the best hopes that we have for our individual and collective healing and transformation. And the very process of how two highly disparate modalities can come together and join into a larger system, precisely models the change that many of us want to see, and also models integral theory itself at its best.

This transformation of the Integral community is likely what leads Elo to list ideas from Circling/Internal Family system therapy/Non-Violent communication that aren't ideas of Wilber as what he got from the integral community and not spiral dynamics (which is central to Wilbers thought).

The post is talking about this guy, who's also the biggest defender of this guy. I don't want LW to have any association with this, so I strongly downvoted the post.

I think it's unfair to charcterise Elo was being focused on Ken Wilber as a person (which the word gushing implies). Integral theory exists for a while and he's not part of the local integral community in Sydney in which Elo made his experiences. The integral community, integral theory and Wilber as a person are three different things. 

The idea of integral thinking of integrating different perspective of seeing the world include modern science is a great one and does draw some great people into the community. On the other hand the implementation of it is often lacking.

I do think integral theory is worth critically discussing on LessWrong without focuing too much individual people like Wilber.

I see Elo's current post, as okay in providing background. It doesn't provide much value, but it's also not problematic and is fine with a one digit positive karma. 

I would welcome future posts that go more into details, so that those can be critically discussed. 

Well, he's the founder and leader of the whole thing. Often referred to as the "Einstein of consciousness studies", as he describes himself.

He also enthusiastically promoted this guy (Ctrl+F "craniosacral rhythm"), this guy (Ctrl+F "wives"), and this guy (Ctrl+F "blood"). Are these examples of great people we'd gain?

Well, he's the founder and leader of the whole thing.

While he's the founder, the word leader is less clear. As far as I'm aware the worldwide integral community is not structured in a way where there's a person who has the power of global leadership. The Integral Institute Australia has their own leadership structure.

He also enthusiastically promoted this guy (Ctrl+F "craniosacral rhythm"), this guy (Ctrl+F "wives"), and this guy (Ctrl+F "blood"). Are these examples of great people we'd gain?

Do you think talking about how you have a bad emotional reaction against his person and making ad-hominem arguments against Wilber is going to do anything to convince anybody who cares about the underlying substance?

When I'm google about the state of Integral in Australia I find a local university writing about how integral thinking plays into their postgraduate program. The people in Integral who are willing and able to do engage with academia are the parts that's positive about the community. 

I've read a lot of stuff from EST, Castaneda, Rajneesh and so on. Before my first comment on this post, I downloaded a book by Wilber and read a good chunk of it. It's woo all right.

But attacking woo on substance isn't always the best approach. I don't want to write a treatise on "holons" to which some acolyte will respond with another treatise. As Pelevin wrote, "a dull mind will sink like an iron in an ocean of shit, and a sharp mind will sink like a Damascene blade". It's enough that the idea comes from a self-aggrandizing "guru" who surrounds himself with identical "gurus", each one with a harem, a love for big donations, and a trail of abuse lawsuits. For those who have seen such things before, the first link I gave (showing the founder of the movement promoting a do-nothing quantum trinket) is already plenty.

There are a strong current on LessWrong that "Bob did something crincy" is no good criticism of Bob no matter the subject matter. That's why posts like the latest If You Want to Find Truth You Need to Step Into Cringe get written. There's also a reason why classic rationality considers ad hominem to be bad arguments. 

I don't think anybody has ever convinced a sizable faction of rationalist who are o to be against something on the basis of arguing that it's cringy. 

Added to the strawmanning, it's an argument structure that's not very promising to win support for a position.

I agree that something like a math theorem can be independent from its author's life details. But Wilber is a philosopher of life, talking about human development and so on, and the people he holds up as examples again and again turn out to be abusers and frauds. There's just no way his philosophy of life is any good.

I'm not familiar with Integral Theory, but I read an earlier book by Wilber that arguably also qualifies as "philosophy of life". I found it to contain some stuff that felt very valuable and some stuff that felt like obvious nonsense.

It strikes me that he was approaching the topics in a way that might be considered somewhat analogous to a study of cognitive biases - in that even if you do actually have a good theoretical understanding of biases that other people can learn from, it doesn't necessarily mean that you're any good at being less biased yourself. Or possibly you have managed to debias yourself with regard to some biases, but you keep getting blindsided by some trickier ones, even if you understand them in theory

This seems to me like a general issue with all these kinds of things, whether it's about cognitive bias or therapy or philosophy of life. You only ever see your mind from the inside, and simply knowing about how it works will (usually) not change how it actually works, so you can have a fantastic understanding of minds in general and manage to fix most of your issues and still fail to apply your skills to one gaping blindspot that's obvious to everyone around you. Or conversely, you can be a massive failure as a human being and have a million things you haven't addressed at all, but still be able to produce some valuable insights.

That said, I do agree that the more red flags there are around a person, the more cautious one should be - both in terms of epistemics (more risk of absorbing bad ideas) and due to general consequentialist reasons (if someone supports known abusers, then endorsing them may indirectly lend support to abuse). 

if someone supports known abusers, then endorsing them may indirectly lend support to abuse

The last US election had two presidential candidates with serious sexual harrassment allegations against them. You could say that anybody who supported either of those candidates should be suspect but I don't think that's a good way to think about the issue.

Often people still support a person because they believe that there are causes that are more important and because they don't believe that the case against the accused person is sufficiently proven. 

If we take Marc Gafni as the core reason to be skeptical of the Integral community that's analogous to being skeptical of Whole Foods in early 2016 when the Whole foods CEO was also associated with Gafni. The whole foods CEO ended up disassociating due to public pressure. To the extend that the difference between John Mackey and Ken Wilber is that John Mackey bowed to the public pressure and Ken Wilber didn't, I don't think we can take it as a reason to see Whole foods as better then the Integral community. 

If we want judge the response of the Intregral community to Marc Gafni we also have to look at the community response and not just on Ken Wilber. Contrary to cousin_it's assertion Ken Wilber is not the leader of the Integral community. The Integral community doesn't have formal global leadership. Ken Wilber could have set up the Integral community in a way that has him as a central leader but didn't. 

While Googling about community positions I found a post by Terry Patten founded and leads Bay Area Integral. In it he writes:

I’ve long had strong feelings about Marc, and the complex issues raised by his engagement with leaders in integral and evolutionary spirituality. I personally decided to stop working with him in 2011, and came to see him as pathological. While I sincerely pray for his healing and redemption, I think communities of practice do need to bar him from functioning as a spiritual leader within them. I’m glad that lines are being drawn, and I’m lending my name to help that happen as unambiguously as possible.

I’m writing this blog as a member of the integral community, and as a teacher and leader who has been repeatedly asked to weigh in. We have no formal elders or wisdom council, so there will be no official integral response.

The fact that there's no central power center in Integral is from my perspective something that's positive about it. The fact that Integral community leaders like Terry Patten are willing to write something like this, shows to me healthy community dynamics.

If you want to take an Integral workshop it might be worth asking the workshop provider on their stance on Marc Gafni and judge them based on how the answer but Wilber's personal stance is less important if you take a workshop about which Wilber has no leadership. 

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