Ken Wilber's AQAL Dogma

by Rolf Sattler

Ken Wilber’s AQAL map sets forth a very encompassing vision of the Kosmos, including human existence. Wilber spells Kosmos with a capital K to indicate that it refers not only to the physical cosmos but to all dimensions and realms of existence, including matter, body, mind, and spirit, manifest as well as unmanifest reality, nature, culture, and self, including art and spirituality (Wilber 2000a, p. 45). In my book manuscript Healing Thinking and Being (Chapter 7), I pointed out some of the many merits of this map of the Kosmos. In my ebook Wilber’s AQAL Map and Beyond (2008), I pointed out shortcomings and limitations.

Ken Wilber (using Korzybski’s phrase) emphasized that a map is not the territory. Thus the AQAL map can at best represent various aspects of the Kosmos, not the Kosmos itself as it is. Representation is based on evidence and insight. As research progresses, new evidence may be obtained and new insights may be gained. If a map such as the AQAL map does not reflect these new insights and evidence, it may become fixated and dogmatic.

Ken Wilber has made some changes in his integral philosophy since he first published his AQAL map in
Sex, Ecology, Spirituality (1995, 2000a) and A Brief History of Everything (1996, 2000b). However, he retained and defends the basic framework and other features of his map. In fact, Fig. 3.1 in Wilber (2016, p. 139), apart from minimal changes in wording and the addition of the pluralistic stage, repeats the map he first published over 20 years ago in Sex, Ecology, Spirituality. He keeps insisting that his AQAL map “is the most complete and accurate map we have at this time” (Wilber 2007, p.18) and that "it contains the essential elements of virtually all of the major maps that humans have ever created around the world and throughout history" (Wilber 2016, p. 12). However, many well-informed critics have pointed out inaccuracies, weaknesses, and shortcomings of his AQAL map and integral vision (see, for example, Rothberg & Kelly (1998), Kazlev (2005), many essays on Frank Visser’s IntegralWorld.Net, and publications such as Jeff Meyerhoff’s Bald Ambition (2010)). If Wilber would have paid more attention to his well-informed critics - there are also ill-informed ones -, he could have created a much improved map. But it seems he missed this opportunity to a great extent because he became more or less fixated on his original AQAL view. Thus, Ishaq (2007) and others noted dogmatic tendencies. Bauwens (2006) even referred to “The Cult of Ken Wilber.” Probably as a result of these dogmatic tendencies, Visser (2010) and Manson (2012) noted a decline in Wilber’s popularity.

In this article I want to focus on some of the most basic AQAL tenets that appear to have hardened into what one might call dogma. My intention is to go beyond this dogma.


The most basic structure of Ken Wilber’s AQAL map is a hierarchy or holarchy. Besides the four (or three) quadrants, it forms the skeleton or backbone of the map (see, for example, Fig. 4-4 in Wilber 2001a, p. 70, 2016). I am not against hierarchy or holarchy. I think looking at manifest reality through the lens of hierarchy (holarchy) allows us to understand important features and relations. Therefore, the concept of a hierarchy (holarchy) remains a useful tool. Ken Wilber, however, goes much further. In the quest for a comprehensive holistic view of the Kosmos, he insists: “The only way to get a holism is via a holarchy” (Wilber 2000a, p.29). Hence, “all genuine holism involves nested hierarchy, or holarchy” (Wilber 2001a, p. 30). This insistence appears dogmatic to me because if holarchy is the only way, the door to any further open enquiry about possible other avenues to holism is closed, just as church dogma closed the door to alternatives. Furthermore, insisting that holarchy is the only way to holism categorically denies and excludes other already existing holistic perspectives of viewing and understanding manifest reality such as holism in terms of undivided wholeness, continua, and networks (see my e-book Wilber’s AQAL Map and Beyond, Chapters 1 and 2). These other views show aspects of reality that are not revealed through the holarchical view. Thus, if we dogmatically insist that holarchy is the only way, we deprive ourselves of exploring other avenues: we enclose ourselves into a holarchic prison, and we lose the spirit of free enquiry. To my mind (using Ken Wilber’s AQAL terminology), such dogmatism does not represent the second tier stage of integral vision-logic, but rather a regression to conformist mythic intolerance.

Another statement by Ken Wilber appears also dogmatic to me. Explaining the notion of the kosmic hierarchy (holarchy) he wrote “the Kosmos is a series of nests within nests within nests indefinitely” (Wilber 2001a, p. 40). By telling us what the Kosmos
is, he seems to forget that his holarchical AQAL map is not the territory, which means that it is not the Kosmos. Similarly, when he wrote “the world of Form is AQAL” (Wilber 2006, p. 288), he also ignored that the world of form (manifest reality) is not his AQAL map, which at best can only capture aspects of the territory of the world of form. In general, Korzybski pointed out that “whatever you might say something “is”, it is not.”(Korzybski 1958, p. 409). Korzybski provided ample evidence for this statement through his Structural Differential (for more detail on this issue see Sattler: Ken Wilber’s AQAL Map and Alfred Korzybski’s General Semantics).

In his
Integral Spirituality, Ken Wilber wrote, “in the manifest world, there are no perceptions, only perspectives” (Wilber 2006, p. 255). However, Ken Wilber’s “integral spirituality” with its fundamental notions of altitude and perspective implies holarchy. If, as I suggested, we could see holarchy also as a perspective, then it would not necessarily exclude other perspectives such as viewing manifest reality in terms of networks, continua, and undivided wholeness. As a result, we would avoid the dogmatic stance that the Kosmos is a holarchy (see also Sattler 2009: Ken Wilber, Holarchy and Beyond). Holarchy then becomes only one way of viewing reality. We can go beyond Wilber, especially his AQAL map, as we include additional ways of viewing reality.

I find it interesting that in a sense Ken Wilber undermines or deconstructs holarchy when he notes that the distinction of levels in the holarchy is somewhat arbitrary because “the way you divide and represent the actual territory is somewhat arbitrary” (Wilber 2007, p. 32). This admission opens the door for a continuum view, which does not postulate levels that are the prerequisite for the construction of a hierarchy or holarchy (see also below at the end of the following section). Nonetheless, Wilber remains attached to levels and holarchy when he affirms that levels have evolved and “once a level has evolved, it is a very real structure existing in the universe” (Wilber 2006, p. 272).

O’Connor (2015, 2017, 2020) softens and transcends Ken Wilber’s hierarchical (holarchical) stance by suggesting a mandalic approach to development. According to this approach, the linearity inherent in a hierarchy (holarchy) is transformed into a mandala that allows a very different view of manifest reality. Other authors have also underlined the appropriateness of the mandalic approach and other non-hierarchical visions. For example, Jack Kornfield (in Rothberg and Kelly 1998, p. 157) noted: “The images or metaphors that seem to work best for me in understanding human development are the mandala and the spiral. Neither the mandala nor the spiral has a strongly hierarchical nature.” And he added: “Human inner development is perhaps more like the weather than like a train line” (ibid., p. 159). McDonald-Smith (in Rothberg and Kelly 1998, p. 169) stated: “I tend to see development as
cyclical, in the framework of a multiplicity of diverse dimensions of growth. I think that we have the potential to work on all the levels all the time...In the very course of a twenty-four-hour day we often experience all the different levels.” Fisher and Mascolo concluded: "It is not appropriate to say that an individual functions at a single developmental level, even for a particular skill. Instead it is more appropriate to say that an individual's skills function at a range of levels depending on context, domain, time of day, emotional state and other variables" (quoted by Berge 2019). Although Ken Wilber emphasized that “there is nothing linear about the self-sense” (in Rothberg and Kelly 1998, p. 310), he insists that the basic structures of development follow a linear sequence. Goldstein, who appears to be the antidote to dogmatism, stated “we might say that many different models can describe different aspects of the spiritual journey [human development]. So for me it’s not a question of being this way or that way; it’s all of the ways” (Goldstein and Rothberg, p. 147). This goes far beyond Wilber, especially his AQAL map.

Transcend and Include

The basic principle in Ken Wilber’s holarchy (at least in the cognitive line) is “Transcend and Include,” which means that you include the stage(s) that you transcend. For example, if you move from the rational stage to the pluralistic stage, you include the rational stage in the pluralistic stage that transcends it. This view helps us understand many phenomena. But I wonder whether one can rigidly impose this view in all instances (in at least the cognitive line). First, I am not sure whether the transcendent level always includes all of the preceding level (see also Desilet’s Pulling Rank). If it does not have to include all, how much does it have to include, if anything? With regard to the moral line even Wilber admits that the higher level does not include the lower level(s); the higher level replaces the lower level(s). Second, the “Transcend and Include” principle implies an asymmetry: the lower level is included in the higher but not vice versa. I am not sure that real situations are always totally asymmetrical. I think that at least sometimes the lower level may already contain the germ or certain aspects of the higher level. This means that we could see the relation between two levels in a Yin-Yang way, where one contains the other more or less. I emphasize the “more or less,” because the “less” may be so minute that it is hardly noticeable. Insisting dogmatically on the “Transcend and Include” principle would hinder us in the search for the “more or less,” especially the “less.” (see also my e-book Wilber’s AQAL Map and Beyond, Chapter 2: Either/or and Beyond).

Going beyond the dogmatic acceptance of holarchy and the “Transcend and Include” principle can be of utmost importance in the real world because it can make a crucial difference in communication and our behaviour in personal, communal, national and international affairs. Why? According to the “Transcend and Include” principle, someone at a lower level cannot understand someone at a higher level. Therefore, those at a higher level may conclude that it is useless to even talk to someone at a lower level. I call this the arrogance of holarchical thinking. Such arrogance may have catastrophic consequences. For example, it may entail the refusal to talk to and negotiate with individuals, organizations, and states that are considered to be on a lower level such as the conformist mythic level. I agree that it seems indeed very difficult to talk to and negotiate with fundamentalists and terrorists, but is has been done successfully. Powell (2014) gives several examples such as the successful negotiations with terrorists in Ireland. And through his
non-violent communication, Rosenberg (2003) succeeded in surmounting barriers that seemed unsurmountable. But to do this one has to give up the arrogance inherent in the “Transcend and Include” principle. One has to recognize that lower levels may contain at least germs of higher levels, and therefore communication may be possible even in situations where it seems hopeless. Thus, conflicts and even wars may be avoided if we can go beyond the dogmatism inherent in the “Transcend and Include” principle. Personal relationships may also be greatly improved. For example, I know a religious fundamentalist with whom discussion of religion seemed impossible. However, I discovered that like myself he appreciates poetry, and thus through poetry we could surmount apparently insurmountable barriers between us.

Therefore, seeing the relation between levels only in terms of the holarchical “Transcend and Include” principle seems unnecessarily restrictive and dogmatic. Seeing this relation for at least some, if not all levels, also in terms of Yin-Yang provides a broader and more integral view of the world and ourselves and may help to resolve problems, conflicts, and wars beyond the reach of the “Transcend and Include” principle.

Furthermore, the whole notion of levels also has to be questioned. Even Ken Wilber, who refers so much to levels, noted that levels “interpenetrate and overlap (like colors in a rainbow) and are not rigid rungs in a ladder” (Wilber 2000a, p. 215). This statement seems to indicate that he envisages a continuum. But in a continuum separate levels and a holarchy that requires levels cease to exist, and therefore nothing can be included or transcended. For example, in a rainbow blue does not include green, nor does it transcend it. One can observe the whole rainbow without recourse to holarchy and the “Transcend and Include” principle.

The Pre/Trans Fallacy

According to Ken Wilber, the pre-trans fallacy is the confusion of lower and higher stages or states in an evolutionary or developmental sequence (such as assuming that the lower level contains at least partially the higher). I shall illustrate this through a comparison of infants and sages. According to Wilber, infants are at the lowest level of human development, whereas sages are at the highest. Assuming that infants resemble sages in any way, is, according to Wilber, a prime example of the pre/trans fallacy because infants live in “an unconscious Hell,” whereas sages have attained “conscious Heaven” (Wilber 1996, p. XII). The infant’s self “simply is a body-self, and as a body it looks at the world” (Wilber 2000c, p. 34). It is simply material, instinctual, and preoccupied with food and survival: “its God is all mouth” (Wilber 2001b, p. 368). Nonetheless, Wilber admits that to some extent infants and children may have access to higher states of consciousness, but he stresses that these experiences are through egocentric channels. With regard to childhood spirituality he wrote: “But in possibly being in touch with the deeper psychic (or soul) realm, infancy and childhood might evidence a connection with one type of spiritual dimension, even though, once again, it is of necessity interpreted and expressed through preconventional and egocentric channels, and thus is not spiritual in any pure sense” (Wilber 2000c, p. 142). Wilber refers also to “trailing clouds of glory,” which are reminiscent of the transpersonal stages of sages. However, he insists “that these “glory” potentials are not something that are part of the infantile stage itself – they are lingering impressions from other, higher spheres” (ibid., p. 265). But since the child actually exhibits these higher spheres, I see them as an integral part of the child’s psychology. This means that the child shares these higher spheres with sages, and this contradicts the pre/trans fallacy: what according to this fallacy is confusion thus appears to be actually the case, that is, the child appears to partake at least to some extent of the heaven of the sage, although it seems unconscious in the child (see also Taylor 2009).

Many authors have concluded that children may exhibit a kind of natural spirituality. Young children appear innocent and spontaneous. They “feel lightness in their being. They play and laugh.”(Chopra 2010, p.50). According to some authors children are born without an ego (see, for example, Rajneesh 1984, p. 429;
Osho: The Seven Doors of the Ego). But according to Ken Wilber, children are egocentric (preconventional). Consequently, he claims that a child is “unable to take the role of other” and thus is “unable to genuinely care for the other” (Wilber 2000c, p. 264). But observing children, they do not always appear so selfish to me. Furthermore, scientific evidence indicates that children can indeed care for each other, cooperate, show a sense of fairness, and behave altruistically (see, for example, David Suzuki: The Nature of Things: Babies Born to be Good?).

These findings contradict Ken Wilber’s claim that young children live in an egocentric, preconventional world. They show that young children may share at least some traits of higher stages in human development. As they grow older, they tend to pass through an egocentric phase until as adults eventually they may – or may not – more or less recapture or even surpass the infantile stage. When they surpass the infantile stage, they become conscious that the ego is an illusion. The child, although without an ego (according to some authors) seems not conscious of its egolessness.

O’Connor’s mandalic approach of human development (to which I referred above) also implies a view of children that is much more positive and open than Ken Wilber’s. Maybe too positive? He thinks that in the absence of childhood trauma and abuse it is possible to “always be in touch with the non-egoic potentials of the psyche.” And he states: “We can develop any of the soul’s faculties at any time because we always have access to them, and not just in Wilber’s step-by-step progression.” I am not sure to what extent we have always access to any of the soul’s faculties, and I guess that O’Connor would agree that in our society that appears sick to a great extent healthy development is not generally supported.

In conclusion, I do not want to deny important differences between children and sages. If these differences are not recognized, we may indeed fall prey to a pre/trans fallacy, which I think captures some aspects of human development. However, in view of empirical evidence, the validity of a pre/trans fallacy seems limited, and therefore a dogmatic defence of this fallacy does not appear useful because it obstructs the discovery of similarities between children and sages. The pre/trans fallacy emphasizes the differences between children and sages but neglects the similarities (see, for example,
Osho: The Seven Doors of the Ego).

After his rejection of what he calls the romantic view, according to which children live in an unconscious heaven, Ken Wilber veered to the other extreme of the pre/trans fallacy, according to which children live in an unconscious hell. I think that the available evidence points more to a middle way between these two extremes. This middle way applies not only to human development but also to human evolution. So-called primitive humans and their animal ancestors (the chimpanzees and bonobos) seem to share much more with us than what most of us, including Ken Wilber, have thought for a long time (see, e.g., de Waal 2005).

Progress, Progress, Progress

Progress during evolution and human development seems to be of prime importance for Ken Wilber. Of course, he does not deny that regressions may also occur. But, in general, progress dominates in his view. If you look at the AQAL map, you see a progression from lower to higher stages in all four quadrants (see Wilber 2001a, pp. 43 and 70, Wilber 2005, Figures 4 and 5, Wilber 2006, pp. 21-22). All the arrows point up. Does this preoccupation with progress colour Ken Wilber’s perception and his conclusions? Seeing infants as material, instinctual, “all mouth” creatures makes the progression to the sage indeed very impressive, much more impressive than if we would also recognize what children and sages have in common. Seeing our human and animal ancestors in a similar manner again makes progress and superiority of modern humans spectacular, more spectacular than if we would recognize “our inner ape” (De Waal 2005) that appears more highly evolved than Wilber admits.

Ken Wilber’s preoccupation (or obsession?) with progress is closely related to or even implied in holarchy, the “Transcend and Include” principle, and the pre/trans/fallacy. As I pointed out, all of these capture an aspect of manifest reality. Therefore, I am not at all denying progress during evolution and human development. To a great extent we have abolished slavery; we don’t burn witches any anymore, and we have progressed in other ways. However, in other respects we have not progressed, and furthermore, we have created a host of social, environmental, economic, political, and other problems that our ancestors didn’t have to face. I don’t know whether eventually we shall surmount all of these problems, or whether we shall succumb to them, or whether we shall continue struggling with our problems. I don’t know whether eventually we shall arrive at Point Omega, a peaceful society of enlightened beings living harmoniously with nature, or whether we shall become extinct in nuclear and/or other disasters, or whether we shall continue navigating between these two extremes. Ken Wilber, however, thinks he knows in which direction we are going. It seems to me that depending on what we emphasize, depending on our view, experience, and mindset, which entail a selection bias, we may have different views on progress. Huxley (1977, p. 118) wrote: "Progress is a modern myth which arose in the the time of the Renaissance."

The Four Quadrants and the Big Three

In the AQAL (All Quadrants, All Levels) map Ken Wilber presents the progression through the levels of the holarchy in four dimensions, which he called the four quadrants: self, culture, nature, and society. Alternatively, he also refers to the Big Three: self, culture, and nature. In this case society is included in nature. I consider the three or four dimensions important aspects of the Kosmos and aesthetically pleasing, etc. However, one can envisage alternatives. But Wilber has become rather fixated on these three or four dimensions and seems to disregard the alternatives that have been proposed. These alternatives include models that allow for only one unified dimension such as Smith’s (2000, 2003) one-scale model, or more than four dimensions such as McFarlane’s (2004) Integral Sphere (see also Neale's tri-axial model that extends the four quadrants into a 3-dimensional AQAL cube).

“It is worthwhile in conclusion to briefly note that any model will necessarily have its limitations.
But what is most disturbing about the four quadrant model (AQAL) is that Wilber presents it as “A Theory of Everything” and an integral model for the “whole Kosmos”. In fact, the four quadrant model is not integral since it excludes very significant dimensions of reality. The effect is that a partial vision is presented as being a complete vision of the whole” (McFarlane 2000).

McFarlane (2004) devised a mathematical mandala of reality called “
The Integral Sphere.” Besides Wilber’s four quadrants, this mandala can include additional dimensions and therefore can represent additional aspects of reality. Thus, Ken Wilber’s four quadrant map can be seen as special limited case within the wider framework of McFarlane’s mandala (see also “McFarlane’s Mathematical Mandala and the Mandala of this Book” in Chapter 6 of my ebook Wilber’s AQAL Map and Beyond). Wilber (2004) admitted that there may be more than four dimensions, but as far as I can see he has not included more than four in his AQAL map. Also in his writings he remained rather fixated or predisposed toward four or three dimensions. But Ray Harris (2006) asked: “Can I suggest that reality is less like a neat box with four quadrants and more like an ecosystem that is complex and constantly shifting? ...but then, this ecological metaphor has its limits, we could use the metaphor of multi-dimensional mathematics and topology, but ecology will do”.

Some more comments on the Big Three: Wilber refers to them as self, culture, and nature, or art, morals, and science, which he equates with Plato’s trinity: the Beautiful, the Good, and the True. Trinities seem to have special appeal. The Christian church dogmatically embraces the trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In science we find many trinities such as, for example, in molecular biology DNA, RNA, and protein, and root, stem, and leaf in plant morphology (Sattler:
Plant Morphology).

I think trinities such as Ken Wilber’s Big Three or trinities in science reveal important aspects of manifest reality. However, when they are embraced dogmatically, they may become a hindrance for further explorations because valid alternatives that may complement these trinities are not taken into consideration.

We can learn much from Lao-tzu who with regard to the Beautiful, the Good, and the True presents a different view:
“When people see some things as beautiful, other things become ugly.
When people see some things as good, other things become bad” (Tao Te Ching translated by Stephen Mitchell 1992, Chapter 2).
“Not knowing [the truth] is true knowledge. Presuming to know is a disease.
First realize that you are sick; then you can move toward health.
The Master is her own physician. She has healed herself of all knowing.
Thus she is truly whole” (ibid., Chapter 71).


I admire Ken Wilber’s genius that led him to the elaboration of his AQAL map, a map of astounding comprehensiveness. It seems inevitable that a map of such breadth and depth has limitations and shortcomings, which indeed have been pointed out by many critics. Wilber has made improvements to his map, but some of his most basic tenets appear to have hardened into what one might call dogmas that prevent him to consider and integrate alternatives. This renders his AQAL map less integral than intended.

In this article I examined the following basic AQAL tenets that appear more or less dogmatic:
1. Ken Wilber’s insistence that manifest reality
is basically hierarchical (holarchical), and that holarchy is the only way to holism.
2. Ken Wilber’s strict adherence to the “Transcend and Include” principle (at least in the cognitive line) to the detriment of alternative views.
3. Ken Wilber’s rigid upholding of the pre/trans fallacy even in light of contradictory evidence.
4. Ken Wilber’s preoccupation (or obsession?) with progress and his belief in general progress.
5. Ken Wilber’s fixation or predisposition toward four quadrants or the Big Three.

I want to emphasize that I consider holarchy, the “Transcend and Include” principle, the pre/trans fallacy, progress, and the four quadrants or the Big Three useful concepts that allow us to understand many aspects of reality. But if these concepts are enforced rigidly or dogmatically, they obstruct aspects of reality that cannot be understood in these terms, and they become a hindrance to a better understanding of the complexities of reality.

To avoid misunderstandings I want to emphasize: I am not saying that Ken Wilber is dogmatic. Only with regard to certain tenets I find him more or less dogmatic, while remaining open-minded in many other ways. Referring to AQAL dogma, I am only saying that some tenets of his AQAL map seem more or less dogmatic, and in this sense one might call them dogmas.

I am disturbed by a lack of openness and dogmatism because they deprive us of wider and deeper understanding. Is it possible that I might also be disturbed for other, more personal reasons? Psychologists, including Ken Wilber, have pointed out that what disturbs us may point to a projection on our part. Could this mean that I am projecting my own lack of openness and dogmatism onto Ken Wilber? Such projection would not necessarily negate Ken Wilber’s lack of openness and dogmatism with regard to some tenets of his AQAL map, but it would mean that I too have to face my own limitations. Therefore, if you can detect any lack of openness or dogmatism in this article, I would appreciate if you would contact me and point it out to me.

And another question: How can we overcome dogmatism and lack of openness? In view of this question, let’s remember Kaisa Puhakka’s (1998) “Call to play” and to dance; and I would add, to joke and to laugh, which creates lightness, the antidote to dogmatism and related issues such as arrogance, defensiveness, intolerance, prejudice, one-sidedness, and exaggerated seriousness (see also Sattler 2013:
Ken Wilber, Humor, and Laughter, Judge 2010: Enacting Transformative Integral Thinking through Playful Elegance, and Sattler: Laughter Quotes).

So let me end this article with a few jokes and one-liners:

The mind is like a parachute: it works much better when it’s open.

“The most unexpected injury most people suffer nowadays is being struck by an idea” (Rovin, J. 1989.
1001 Great One-Liners. New York: Penguin).

“Most people have minds like concrete: mixed up and permanently set” (Rovin, J. 1989.
1001 Great One-Liners. New York: Penguin).

Albert Einstein said: Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity; and I am not sure about the universe.

See also McGuinness’ (2013) parody “
The Most Important Conversation of our Time! Ken Wilber/Andrew Cohen Dialogue.”


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Sattler, R. 2009. Ken Wilber, Holarchy, and Beyond

Sattler, R.
Healing Thinking and Being. Chapter 7: AQAL Map by Ken Wilber Integrates the Unnamable and Namable.

Sattler, R.
Ken Wilber’s AQAL Map and Alfred Korzybski’s General Semantics.

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Laughter Quotes.

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