Lecture 2: Some Philosophical Visionaries and Their Ideas

Adam Blatner, M.D.

(This is the 2nd of a 6-lecture series for Senior University Georgetown, Fall, 2011)  (Unfinished.)

The first lecture (September 26) introduced the idea of visionary and the different types, considering the paradigm shifts happening today.
This is the second lecture. .October 3
The third lecture on October 10 addressed  trends in contemporary psychology
The  fourth lecture 
addressed  visionaries in education, which is one extension of psychology
The fifth lecture considered the idea of consciousness evolution, building on the talk about the Great Story given summer 2009.
The sixth lecture on October 31, considered the phenomenon of "inter-spirituality", also building on a lecture series given for the Senior University in the Spring of 2008.)  and will close with a summary.

Introductory Remarks

First, I want to acknowledge that a variety of books and writings and websites envision aspects of the future, such as economic and political possibilities, technical inventions, and so forth. However, this series of lectures will focus primarily on changes in consciousness relating to psychology, philosophy, education, and spirituality. I know I left a lot out regarding who could be visionaries. One example of an intriguing list was published by Utne Magazine some years back, and their website continues to present new people.

This talk will be about basic shifts in world-view, "paradigm shifts," alterations in the basic way we think about life. Philosophy might be re-cognized (re-framed, re-thought) as basically a questioning of old assumptions. Please note that you need not be scholarly to do philosophy. And philosophy is actually a little revolutionary, in that some major paradigm shifts are afoot.

Although my background is in medicine and psychiatry, I entered the field when it was thinking about how the culture---and basic attitudes---might be adding stresses. So philosophy---in the sense of what are the major attitudes that give meaning---are relevant to me. Also, I want to note that psychology---especially dynamic psychology that looks at underlying motives---has always been a recognized element in philosophy, and vice versa.  (Also, I am far from the stereotype of the "shrink"---in fact, the opposite! An "expander!" See the webpage essay I wrote about this!)

Part of what has changed in philosophy has been the movement of psychology from the periphery to the mainstream! We're talking in this lecture series especially about the evolution of consciousness!  But can both individuals and the culture as a whole evolve, make progress, become more conscious? That’s what this lecture series about.

Another shift in our awareness is the fact that everything has become more complex as we explore almost every field of science and many other endeavors. For example, we have begun to appreciate the way complexity operates through the mathematics of fractals and chaos theory. There's a lovely picture of fractals at the top right of this webpage. None of this was around when we were young.

More About Philosophy

I think we need to de-mystify philosophy somewhat. When I grew up philosophy was a very studious, hyper-intellectual game. And indeed it can be.  But I’ve been doing an amateur type of philosophizing all my life, I realize—or since my early teen years, at least— and it’s really more of a process of active questioning and thinking about and trying to fit together pieces that don’t easily fit. All this has been more fun because the game has been changing, and the place of logic, and wondering what it’s all about has been changing with new angles from many philosophers!

I think everyone is a philosopher, even if only unconsciously and in a simple way:. For example, the depth psychologist Alfred Adler noted that young children construct intuitive answers to four questions between the ages of two and five:
  -- Who am I? Am I a winner or loser, bright or dumb, loveable or obnoxious, acceptable or weird?
  -- Who are others? Are they worthy of trust or distrust? Fun to be around or avoid? Is it fun to confuse or hurt some others? Are they sources of fun or annoyance, judgmentalness or acceptance?
   -- What's the world about? Is it an unending source of wonder, a struggle demanding great effort, a hell-hole to be endured, or what?    And based on the felt and mainly unconscious impressions that become implicit answers to these three questions, they combine with ability and temperament to help answer the fourth:
   -- What's the best way to cope with life?  Try again or give up? Share openly or keep lots of secrets?  etc.
So these impressions generate a sense of meaning or meaninglessness about life. As I note, for most people this process remains rather unconscious. I have been impressed with the way people generate instinctively a kind of collage of impressions, ideas, beliefs, favorite memories and preferences, and many other elements into what works for them as a philosophy of life---works better or worse, depending on changing circumstances.

There are some, though, who intentionally, consciously try to make sense of their own beliefs, try to check them out for internal logic or whether they match up with external experiences. Often they begin to read books, attend workshops, study with someone perceived to be wiser, and so forth. Some do this in college as a major, or a minor. A very few actually specialize in this in graduate education and go on to an academic career---they are professional philosophers. But my point is to both respect some of their efforts and also to empower you to do whatever is progress for you! You don't have to be a professional or even very scholarly to begin to think about what it's all about.

Indeed, I think that while a moderate amount of study and thought, discussion and re-working does make for a better philosopher, I also think this must be balanced with a degree of lived life, with poetry, art, play, story, myth, faith, music, and involvement with people. If there's too much "head stuff" without this balance, it can squeeze the "juice" out of a workable philosophy---one ordinary people can use.


One of the challenges for philosophy is the recognition that there are different types of criteria. One is logical consistency, another is whether the theory fits the observed facts. Another still is whether a given theory can be used to better one's life---and if so, are there others who are put at a disadvantage because of this philosophy? Does the philosophical notion jibe with other ideals? Some philosophy debates which criteria are relevant for certain kinds of problems.

One interesting theme in this regard is the notion that consciousness itself can evolve. There's a saying, "a pickpocket at a conference of saints would only see their pockets." Still, we must differentiate between the impossible and the merely rather difficult.  It's hard, then, to get agreement about what's really important, because different folks value different things. The other point is that it is a stretch to imagine what "higher consciousness" might be like. My own hunch as that such folks are for the most part nice, helpful, constructive.

The Blind Men and The Elephant

There's a parable about a broup of blind men who encounter an elephant. This story is most often set in India, but the story is also told about people in, say, Japan, or China who have that challenge. Anyway, each approached the beast and felt different part of the body: One holding the ear said “the elephant is like a fan.” another holding the tail said “It’s very like a fly whisk.” and so forth.
    Now, to the degree they said , "No but..". they were foolish. To the degree they said, “yes and this part is...” they might have had a chance to wisely create a composite idea.. We'll touch on the idea that one may be able to reach towards a multi-perspectival view of reality when we talk about the work of the philosopher Ken Wilber. What we need to get past is the spirit of I'm right so you must be wrong, which is the old paradigm. .
Just for fun, though, I'd like to push the metaphor. Even if the elephant has all these different parts, there are also a number of aspects of an elephant (or many other kinds of phenomena) that have been discovered since that parable was used. Fore example, using the tools of modern science, we might also wonder about
  -- the internal anatomy of the elephant
  -- its histology or microscopic anatomy, the kinds of cells it has
  -- its physiology, how the different parts work
  -- its behaviors in nature
  -- its social life
  -- its ecological relationships with plants, other animals, the environment...
         ...each approach lending further depth to the nature of this creature.
 The point here is that so many things are being found to be so much more than what we thought they were to begin with, such as, for example, electricity.  

Because that’s what’s happening to our sense of reality in this expanding era.
Another Paradigm Shift: Worldview
It has been noted that when humanity began to see the earth from the moon, that beautiful blue pearl in the dark black of star-speckled space suggested two things: First, it was quite beautifu. Second, we're all part of the crew of "spaceship earth." It became a symbol of a new era in human history, an era where it was becoming clear that as Ben Franklin said to his fellow revolutionaries 225 years ago, "We must all hang together else we hang separately," only now that applies to our global citizenship. And it includes also our ecological relationships with our fellow life forms---this "dominion" over life should not be imagined to be an exploitative relationship, but rather a sustainable one.

             "I was wondering when you'd notice
                 there's lots more steps."

There was a radio program devoted to these ideas titled "New Dimensions." They would start their programs with someone saying, "It is only through a change in consciousness that the world will be transformed. The personal and the planetary are connected. As we expand our awareness of mind, body, psyche and spirit, and bring this awareness actively into the world, so also will the world be changed."

This is not just academic. This is political and philosophical. Evan as people argue about politics, complaining about what’s becoming of kids today, trying to keep up with technology and so forth, part of this is trying to construct a philosophy adequate for our post-modern era. And the main point  I want to suggest is that human consciousness is also evolving!

Ken Wilber, Contemporary Philosopher

Ken Wilber, born in January, 1949, began his career as an autodidact, a self-taught scholar, in the mid-1970s. He began to research and write books---he's done over twenty so far!---and has emerged as perhaps the era's most dynamic contemporary philosopher. He's ignored by many in academia, but is appreciated widely by a great many intellectuals in many fields.

Wilber has developed many interesting ideas, but I want to present only two of them for your consideration. I'm not sure I agree with everything he writes, but I do with much of it. He is just the most prominent of a good many people who are really asking those fundamental questions that need to be asked. The two ideas I'll present here are these:

    -- Reality is best appreciated by considering it as involving four major perspectives that he divides into quadrants---two subjective, two objective; and two more individual and two more collective, as represented in this chart to the right.   And second, on the left...,
    -- There are stages of the evolution of human consciousness, each stage including the best of the previous stages. These include  various stages or lines of development.
    Most people in ouur culture operate in the middle between traditional and modernist and postmodern consciousness. This is a map that suggests that we might go up a step, become more inclusive.

The Four Quadrants

Philosophers have tended to describe reality from one or another quadrant, as if all reality could be reduced to one perspective. In the second picture on the right are some of these different positions.. Thie idealist says mind is reality (and all else is illusion); the extreme scientist or materialist says that only matter is reality; the extreme postmodernist says that all is culturally constructed meaning, and the extreme systems theory syas that the only reality is the interacting web of life. Wilber says, they're all right in affirming that their position has some validity; but they're all mistaken in discounting the other viewpoints. The idea to get past is that "they can't all be right." Well, why not? Is it perhaps a residue of several hundred years of reductionism, of assuming that there must be only one cause? And might this assumption be misleading?

In other words, it's time to get past our tendencies to feel entitled to a simplistic reduction of the complexity of reality as basically one thing or category: In fact it's four different perspectives (that Wilber has identified). I might add several others, such as humor, myth, poetry, drama, and so forth. I agree with Wilber that we need to be open to a "multi-perspectival" perspective! They're all "real" ! Wilber's critique of a number of other philosophers has been that they worked mainly from the perspective of one quadrant, or maybe two, and they may have been clever and to a degree, "right," but they left out equally compelling other sources.
"All Levels"
This is another aspect of Ken Wilber's thinking, and it partakes of the general idea put forth for millennia and in many cultures of what is known as "The Great Chain of Being. It's a sort of hierarchy---not so much of power as of inclusive fields, so that, for example, the organism contains organ systems which contains organs, and in turn, tissues, cells, sub-cellular structures,  macro-molecules, molecules, etc. Before microscopes, though, philosophers sensed that there may be hierarchies of "higher" consciousness. Perhaps today we'd speak of more encompassing systems.   Now the other perspective that deals with evolution of consciousness.  On another paper on this website I write and illustrate the idea that we are socially embedded in larger networks.

The Great Chain of Being has been talked about for thousands of years before Darwin and other theories of evolution. It was clear to ancients that there was a sort of hierarchy, with God at the top and rocks at the bottom—well, maybe below that Hell.

36. In the Renaissance the idea that humans could rise to the heights of almost being like angels or let them decay into the mind state of animals, plants, or even rocks.

37. Other systems intuited this general theme in different ways. There were also hierarchies of angels or of more advanced states of consciousness beyond humanity.
38. And Modern Science traced this back to the Big Bang and then galaxies, starrs, planets , life...

39. And modern developmental psychologists noted similar patterns in the development of maturity and faith. Many other examples I won’t even bother you with.

40 Anyway, Ken Wilber synthesized many trends..

41 Let’s trace this through a few major philosophers who had ideas that really stimulated Wilber’s synthesis. For example Georg Hegel in the 19th century had many followers and many who built their own ideas as antitheses to his.  

42. Henri Bergson added the theme of creativity.

43. Whitehead promoted the idea of religions and every other kind of knowledge as evolving. His work was very influential to me.

44. I was fortunate to discover this stream of philosophy through coming to be friends with  Professor Hartshorne in 1983, which boosted my interest in other forms. He gave me a number of pieces of good advice, one of the best being that one approach for understanding the writings of a given philosopher is to get some idea of whose position he was trying to CORRECT. In other words, most philosophers and innovators were in some sense presenting an antithesis to someone else’s ideas or a synthesis of two arguments that had not yet been reconciled.
    (Those are my cartoons that Prof. H. Had hanging in his home.)

45. Baldwin: There is an overlap in this Great Chain business, the awareness that kids too might be viewed not as little adults who just didn’t know stuff, but as actually thinking differently, going through stages of cognitive maturation. Widely recognized today, it wasn’t much considered until early in this century.

46. Psychology, philosophy, how about spirituality. There have been a fair amount of great visionaries coming out of Asia, one of them being Sri Aurobindo, who has influenced many intellectuals in the West. He also proposed the development and potential for cultivation of “higher” states of consciousness.

47. A Russian fellow, Vernadsky, set up the idea that the whole of evolution proceeds in a series of increasing complexity—similar to a talk I gave a couple of years ago...

48.  And an important visionary who died in 1955, a Jesuit who was silenced by the church during his later lifetime, but whose work has become more popular in intellectual seminaries, Teilhard de Chardin, extended Verdadsky’s ideas—what if our own era is turning evolution beyond the material and into and beyond the mental to the spiritual? What if the ability to think about our source and purpose is part of the Great Story?  More about that in Lecture 5.

49. A not-well-known mid-20th century philosopher took a step going beyond what is now postmodernism, and contemplated the next step in consciousness that could encompass multiple perspectives—this is related to the 4 quadrants I spoke to----away from either-or and toewards yes-and.

50. Jurgen Habermas doesn’t claim to know what truth is. I don’t think we can, because truth depends so much upon criteria used to assess what’s so, what’s important, what’s trivial, etc.—and this in turn depends on individual minds and preferences. But what I liked about his work—and Wilber liked it too—is that there is a way to work towards more truth rather than less—and that’s to really encourage true encounter, dialog, without power gradients. No small task, but it overlaps with what I’ll say about oppression next time.
       All these philosophers are brought together in Ken Wilber’s work. I don’t expect you to remember this—there’s no exam—but I do want to say that I’m thrilled to know that folks are wrestling with these themes, and there are thousands of them out there. Some I think are full of hooey, but they might think the same of me, so the point is not that I need to be right, but rather that I want to let you know that people are re-thinking assumptions, and even questioning the game and the nature of the game we’re all playing. Intellectually, that’s invigorating. And you can be empowered to do your thing at your own level.
51. Clare W. Graves. This psychologists again correlated development of Baldwin and history and others to speak of cultural and individual stages of development, and this was a significant influence on Ken Wilber. Graves’ work was further advanced by Don Beck and Cowan, and then Wilber.

52. Each turn of the spiral of evolution ideally doesn’t just supplant the previous, but learns to include it. But in fact the progress is more ours-is-better-than-yours around the world, so level 3 conquered the tribes that were still at level 2 between two and four millennia ago, and the mainstream of power gradually shifted to level 4 exercising domination over level 3 from maybe 500 through 1800 CE. The orange level is the modern world, industrialized, although the two overlap, so that modern was also ethnocentric in a colonialistic way a century to two centuries ago, pushing religion on the heathen—and there’s a lot of that thinking even today.
     Starting more fully around the 1950s with some precursors over the previous century, the 6, green, humanistic, level has continued to grow.

(Go back to 51)

53. Chart graves / wilber? So starting in mid-1970s, Ken Wilber began to put this together, and continues to gather lots of bright folks who think he’s on to something.

54 picture wilber   and I’m not suggesting you have to buy all he proposes. I don’t. But it’s on the whole good stuff that makes us think. And lots of others are building on and even elaborating some critiques.


56 4 chart...  Look at number 11 - 13, where we are. Centauric means the centaur who is part human part animal. We’ll talk about how we can learn to train our animal nature next time. But the hint here is that personal development and maturity deals with social maturity.

57 at this 9 level, we’ll talk about evolution in the 5th lecture, but the idea is what does it mean that consciousness may evolve in part to include not just personal liberation, but social and cultural advancement?

58. Look at the 13s, that’s the point. What does that mean!??

59.  Can consciousness evolve?

60. Here’s another picture and notice that on the higher spirals all the other colors are included a bit... that’s why Wilber calls it “integral” theory, because it integrates, it acknowledges that different folks, countries, sub-groups, according to their development, have to work though the challenges associated with their own level. But it’s good knowing that there are indeed higher levels.

61.  Wilber also acknowledges that people develop along different lines and can be more mature in one level and less so in another. If time, review these levels further

18. Tree of Knowledge diagram—similar to what we’ll see again in lecture 5---The first point to note is that we have been evolving—the earth has been evolving, and life has been evolving, and mind in animals has been evolving, becoming more complex, and our philosophy of life needs to take this into consideration. And culture has evolved from mind and you can see it becoming broader, including television shows and opera and chess tournaments. And science and social science is part of this.

19. We must recognize that whole new fields have emerged and branched off of the main stems in a matter of centuries, and this branching is speeding up. Biology, microbiology, cell biology, immunology,,   one stream of science branching... and other streams, such as marine biology..

20. Look at this close up – on the column on the right, each advance speaks to a more complex and sophisticated form—or many forms.  
     Memes are a concept introduced in 1976 by David Dawkins to suggest that not only physical genes operate as a vehicle of change, but symbols, words, phrases, song lyrics, language, and other creations of human minds can catch on, be experienced as useful, wise, powerful, beautiful, evocative—and to the extent these ideas or words or thoughts live, in a manner of speaking, the word for that idea or word as sort of alive passing among people, becoming a classic whatever or dying away, has some similarity to the principles of physical evolution. Meme.

21. A basic metaphysical question—what is reality.
    In the 1970s Robin Williams played a visitor from another planet—Mongo—or was that where Flash Gordon’s nemesis, Ming the merciless was—racist back when that added a bit of zing— anyway, Mork would comment from his ET extra-terrestrial perspective. My favorite and only memory was his hearing the word reality and replying, “Reality!?! Hmpf! What a concept!”

    I grew up in an era of strong myth-making in the science fiction realm, but it was not cool and slightly weird. I think it still is a bit. But the Western “modern” world was prideful in its valuing of reality—with a notable blind spot granted to traditional religion.

  22.  I think the challenge in the 21st century—one of many—is to recognize that mind events, also known as phenomena, deserve to be treated with the respect that the world reality confers.

23    Or that perhaps we might begin to realize and recognize that reality can exist in different ways for different people. Or there are yet other interpretations.

24               (Scientism)

25. Core questions that challenge mere materialism, dark energy, etc.

26   can mind be a fundamental part....  We need to name the water we’ve been swimming in that we didn’t know was wet. In our case, we’ve been living in a world where only that which was material was officially real for most classroom grading. No imagination, no dreams—they’re “just”—as in “just your imagination, dear.” “That was ‘just’ a dream.”  More people are criticizing this.

Materialism and also reductionism—things are nothing but their most elementary particles. This was fashionable educated thought and talk in the first half of the 20th century, but gradually began to be challenged—though it’s still very prevalent.
    Questioning, that’s the point.  But official science is not as pat as it seemed to be in the mid-20th century. But it never was—it’s just that we’ve discovered fuzzy problems at the edges of our knowledge and the word is getting out that while scientists are wrestling with these problems, we don’t really know.

Visionaries.  References, futurists, technical, economic, Utne reader