Over the past few months, I’ve done two major series on Integral thought: Integral Basics, which introduced the general framework within which many Integral thinkers operate; and this most recent series on Growing with Intention, which explored different engines of spiritual growth through an Integral lens. But as much as I like the Integral approach, I’m not under any illusions that it is a perfect or problem-free way of looking at the world. So, today I thought it would be helpful to make the counter-argument to these series: Why not an Integral approach to life and faith?
Before I get into my lingering concerns, it’s important to remember that while we may talk about Integral frameworks, Integral theory, and Integral thought, ‘Integral’ doesn’t understand itself primarily as a philosophical system. Instead, it believes that it is the next major worldview that will emerge naturally within human culture. This means that what we have today is not ‘Integral’ itself, but the present tangible constructs proposed by various writers working within this worldview, over the first two decades or so of its emergence. By their very nature, major worldviews take a long time to develop, and develop in different — often competing — ways. We have to remember that ‘Modernism’ is equally well-represented by rationalism, empiricism, and fundamentalism; in the same way, I would expect that — if indeed Integral proves to be what it thinks it is and not just the pet intellectual project of a few thinkers — it too will manifest in many different ways. I say all this because having concerns about the some of the ways the Integral worldview has been framed in its first decades does not mean it isn’t right, only that it is still emerging and we don’t know what it will look like yet in the end.
All this said, what are some of my concerns about Integral thought?
The first is that it can tend to ‘both-sides-ism’, the tendency to equate the failings of all sides of an issue, regardless of the relative severity of those failings, often sprinkled with a smug disdain for partisanship. Integral has a desire to find the good kernel at the heart of opposing perspectives; this is a strength of this worldview that might allow us to find common ground with people who differ from us in big ways. But, at times, it can also lead to a situation where the strengths or weaknesses, or even dangers, of different belief systems are unintentionally put on the same level so they are viewed as equally viable options. For example, over the pats few months, I’ve heard prominent Integralists speak about white nationalism and critical race theory with equal concern, when these are not equal-but-opposite ideas: one wants to codify and entrench the power of one group at the expense of others; the other wants people who have not generally had to face problems on account of their race to acknowledge that this conveys advantages for them. Even if someone doesn’t accept the latter conclusion, it should be obvious that any dangers in it are minimal compared to those represented by the antidemocratic and exclusionary tendencies in the former!
Connected to this is a certain impatience with postmodernism among some prominent Integral thinkers. Perhaps the best example of this was in the aftermath of the 2016 US Presidential election, when a lot of the chatter in the Integral world was not about the sudden emergence of the ‘red’ authoritarian meme in American politics (which seemed to me the big news of that election), but about ‘green’ postmodernism’s failings. There’s no question that postmodernism’s centering of the local and particular makes the kind of coalition-building required in electoral politics difficult to achieve, and this is indeed very frustrating. There’s also no question that postmodernism is wonderful at pointing out weaknesses, deconstructing grand narratives, and tearing down systems, but not good at rebuilding better. But, some of the talk seems to me to border on the kind of ‘transcend-and-reject’ pathology Integral thought is designed to avoid instead of the genuine ‘transcend-and-include‘ of healthy, integrated growth. If we take the presuppositions of Integral thought seriously, then we have to accept that postmodernism is a positive step beyond our modern institutions, and has a job to do. Modernity had five hundred years to build systems; they have proven to be remarkably strong, stable, and adaptable; but they have also served to exclude people, to twist understandings of power and wealth, and to lead us to the existential threat of our climate crisis. As tiresome and uncomfortable as it may be, there is still a lot of deconstruction that needs to happen. Integral thinkers would do well to use this time to prototype what new systems and structures might be built in the future instead of bemoaning postmodernism for doing its necessary job of insisting that society work for everyone.
The second major concern I have is a common misunderstanding of evolution, namely the idea that evolution is about humanity and the universe getting better and better. But biological evolution is not about getting better, but about becoming optimally suited for life in one’s environment and ecological niche. There are animal species on Earth, crocodylians for example, who have not changed much in tens of millions of years. This doesn’t mean that they aren’t ‘highly evolved’; it means that their evolution allowed them to master their niche early on, to the extent that the genetic mutations that drive evolution have not been helpful enough to be passed on. While I admit that I do find the romanticism of language like “participating in the universe’s evolution” inspiring, it is metaphorical at best and simply wrong at worst. This also makes the melding of human cultural development together with evolution very problematic. Indeed, by evolution’s own goals, a human hunter-gatherer society would be far better ‘evolved’ than our post-industrial society: hunter-gatherers may not have cocktails, air conditioning, or smartphones, but they are generally well-adapted to their often vastly different environments in a way that puts us to shame. They certainly don’t put the whole planet on the brink of mass ecological catastrophe!
This concern ties in to the one I discussed at length in the post on stages of development, that the ‘memes’ of Integral theory can easily be misconstrued in a way that makes some cultures or people ‘better’ or even more ‘highly evolved’ than others. This is not its intent, but I don’t think we can talk about it responsibly without addressing this big problem. (I encourage you to read the post on stages of development for the fuller discussion.) When it comes to stages of development, and their secondary application to groups of people, we need more, and more representative, data. We need to ensure that the insights of developmental psychology on which this piece of Integral thought is based are verified in non-Western (non-WEIRD) societies and if they’re not, reassess those insights accordingly. (A great example of just this kind of effort is the work of the positive psychologists working on a set of universal character traits valued across human culture; they have tweaked their list a few times as insights from more and more cultures have been incorporated.)
This post has been an attempt at intellectual honesty. Integral thought is a set of ideas with which I think it is very helpful to play. And I think it answers the question of ‘What might come next?’ better than any other framework I’ve encountered. But that does not mean I am fully committed to all of the ways it has been expressed, or that I think it is ‘fully baked’ at this early point in its emergence. None of the concerns I’ve discussed here are fatal flaws, and most, if not all, of them are actually mitigated by applying the Integral lens itself. But they are worth discussing honestly.