The Marriage of Sense and Soul by Ken Wilber Book Review

The Marriage of Sense and Soul1 by Ken Wilber

Book Review by Robert J. Hesse, Ph.D.

 2009 January 12

Ken Wilber is considered by some to be the greatest contemporary philosopher in the U.S.  In this work he attempts to integrate science and religion in a manner and on terms acceptable to both.  There is, he tells us, “arguably no more important and pressing topic. . . Our omnipresent global scientific framework cannot, by its own internal logic, create meaning or value, while religion, both despite and because of its pre-modern roots, creates value and meaning for billions.  As science and religion hotly deny significance and even reality to each other, we are faced with “a massive and violent schism and rupture in the internal organs of today’s global culture.”2  In building his metaphysical and epistemological case, Wilber reviews the following:

  1. SCIENTIFIC METHOD – The nature of science and scientific method, including a common misreading of Thomas Kuhn and the notion of “new paradigms”;
  2. MODERNITY & ENLIGHTENMENT – The Dignity, and the Disaster, of modernity and the Enlightenment;
  3. FAILED INTEGRATION – Previous failed attempts at integrating science and religion, including Romanticism, Idealism, and a no-nonsense deconstruction of Postmodernism.

Wilber’s main argument rests on three insights:

  1. INTERIOR DIMENSIONS – It is not spirituality alone that has been overwhelmed by science and modernity’s differentiation of science, morals, and art (i.e., the I, the We, and the It, or the True, the Good, and the Beautiful) into three separate value spheres (i.e., the I, the We, and the It, or the True, the Good, and the Beautiful).  Thus, “the interior dimensions of the Kosmos were simply gutted and laid out to dry in the blazing sun of the monological gaze.  . . . this was not simply or even especially an attack on spiritual realities [Wilber’s italics]; it was an attack on the entire sweep of interior, introspective, lived awareness and consciousness.  None of those interior dimensions has simple location in the sensorimotor world, and thus none of them was primarily or irreducibly real.”3  The first step to reconciliation, then, is to rehabilitate the interior realms in general.
  2. NONPHYSICAL REALITY – Science has unfairly denied the validity and investigability of everything not physical or sensorimotor in nature. True or “deep” science rests on the threefold method of injunction, namely:
    1. EXPERIMENT undertaken, look through this telescope, and meditate.
    2. DATA collect, apprehend what’s there, and view the results.
    3. CONFIRMATION via discussions within a qualified community of investigators.

    Deep science is more than empirical in the narrow sense of “only physical.” Not only can, and have, interior realms such as moral and spiritual development been investigated, but science itself relies heavily on the interior-only realms of mathematics and logic to conduct its investigations. If science already relies on such interior processes, how can it possibly deny value and meaning to other interior realms?

  3. RELIGIOUS MYTHS – In addition to having science compromise, Wilber asks religion to compromise by giving up (“bracketing”) its premodern mythic beliefs.  According to Wilber the myths of religion, for example the Red Sea parting and the Virgin Birth, are simply untenable in light of modernity’s differentiation of art, morals, and science.4  I find it interesting that after Wilber wrote this book in the mid 1990’s, cloning was confirmed, seemingly a version of virgin birth.  “But the deep sciences of the interior domains, disclosed by direct experiential evidence and data, evoked by repeatable injunctions, and open to confirmation or rejection by a community of the adequate [yield] precisely the genuine knowledge that religion, holdings its head high, can bring to the integrative table.”5  A religion’s mythic beliefs add color, but no religion should expect science or other religions to acknowledge them.  At the esoteric core of all religion is the Great Chain (“Great Holarchy”) of Being.  Wilber prefers the following Great Nest of Being.6


Great Nest of Being

Following upon these three insights, Wilber’s brings into play the four quadrants of reality shown in the following diagram7 with the holons summarized here:

  1. INTENTIONAL – Interior-Individual (upper left)
  2. CULTURAL – Interior-Collective (lower left)
  3. BEHAVIORAL – Exterior-Individual (upper right)
  4. SOCIAL – Exterior-Collective (lower right)

According to Wilber’s diagram, the conflict between science and religion is gone, and an integral science, acknowledging spiritual development, becomes a real possibility.  Wilber believes that religion can regain its role in spiritual science because “The great secret message of the experimental mystics the world over is that, with the eye of contemplation, Spirit can be seen.  With the eye of contemplation, God can be seen.”8

Wilber’s is incredibly both broadly and deeply well read which has led to the titles of some of his over 36 books including A Brief History of Everything and A Theory of Everything: An Integral Vision for Business, Politics, Science and Spirituality.


1 Wilber, Ken. The Marriage of Sense and Soul: Integrating Science and Religion. New York: Broadway Books, 1999.
2 Ibid., 3.
3 Ibid., 79.
4 Ibid., 203.
5 Ibid., 207.
6 Ibid., 8.
7 Ibid., 64-65.
8 Ibid., 174.

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