Sean Esbjorn-Hargens - Integral Ecology. Part 3: Exploring Animal Consciousness
July 29, 2009 00:59

Integral Ecology. Part 3: Exploring Animal Consciousness
Sean Esbjorn-Hargens and Ken Wilber
Written by Corey W. deVos

There is an old joke about the difference between dogs and cats, which goes something like this:

When a dog looks at you, he wags his tail and says to himself "Wow, look at all the love and affection and attention this person is giving me! He must be a god!" Meanwhile, a cat will glance at you, look away with graceful contempt, and say to herself "Wow, look at all the love and affection and attention this person is giving me. I must be a god!"

And there lies the true difference between cats and dogs. 

Okay, it's a bad joke, but it's a funny way to illustrate a good (albeit fairly obvious) point: animals are conscious too. We have all felt it at one point or another, whether it's in the warmth and devotion seen in your dog's big sad eyes, the affectionate hum of your cat's purr; or even the blissful frenzy that ensues when you feed your fish. Some of our most rewarding relationships can be with our pets, which would not be the case if we did not recognize some spark of subjectivity behind their eyes—certainly not as deep or nuanced as our own, but conscious nonetheless. 

Consciousness runs all the way up and down the evolutionary chain, becoming deeper and more sophisticated as physical form grows more and more complex. But surprisingly, the actual nature of animal consciousness has remained somewhat elusive to researchers and ecologists—some of whom insist that animals don't actually have interiors, while others admit that animal interiors should be taken into account without actually knowing how to do so. And really, how complete or comprehensive can our maps of nature be if they can't even accommodate the intelligence of a shrimp? 

"This is one of the things that really separates [Integral Ecology] from a lot of the holistic approaches: not only do we say that animal interiors are important, but we actually give a lot of clear instruction as to how we might go about concretely and rigorously including and investigating animal interiors." -Sean Esbjorn-Hargens

Here Sean and Ken explore the problem of animal consciousness, discussing some of the remarkable ways the Integral approach to ecology helps us to better understand the subjective experience of any sentient organism. It should be noted that Sean and Ken grapple with some fairly advanced concepts here, and if you are not already fairly well-versed with Integral theory, you will most likely want to hear the first two parts of this talk before listening.

Topics Include:

Opening the Black Box: Subjectivity is often referred to as a "black box," as it is very difficult to directly access another being's consciousness or even say anything meaningful about it—and the status quo has become one of "we might as well not say anything at all." But the Integral methodology does offer us some tools to help us open this black box, or to at least triangulate what sorts of interior experiences a creature might be having, based upon the correlates to consciousness that we actually can measure. 

The Eight Zones: Simply put, the "eight zones" refer to a fairly advanced application of Ken Wilber's Four Quadrant model, which looks at each quadrant from the inside and the outside. This results in eight distinct "zones" of human inquiry and research, each with a corresponding family of methodologies that disclose particular types of information about different aspects of reality. For example, you can look at your upper-left subjectivity from a 3rd-person perspective, which results in structuralism (e.g. stages of consciousness, Spiral Dynamics, etc.), or you can view it from a 1st-person perspective, which results in phenomenology (e.g. states of consciousness, the actual contents of thought, etc.) On their own, these methodologies reveal what are often seen as conflicting descriptions of reality—but taken together, they comprise what is known as Integral Methodological Pluralism (IMP), allowing us to take a fully comprehensive view of self, culture, and nature.  (See the graphic below for more details.)

Anthropomorphism: A Dirty Word? Defined as the attribution of uniquely human characteristics to non-human creatures and beings, natural and supernatural phenomena, material objects and abstract concepts, both postmodern philosophy and the natural sciences take considerable exception to anthropomorphism. With very good reason—there is simply no room for psychological projection in science. But when approach critically, anthropomorphism can actually help us understand certain aspects of animal consciousness, if only by analogy—we descend from the animal kingdom, after all, and we can use our own understanding of ourselves as organisms to deepen our understanding of animal interiors.

The Who, How, and What of Integral Ecology: Our perceptions of reality are the result of an observer using a particular method of observation to look at some particular aspect of the physical, mental, or spiritual world. Sean offers a brief tour through the eight zones of the IMP model, showing how an integral researcher (the "who") can use various methodologies (the "how") to investigate different aspects of reality (the "what"). (See the graphics below for more details.)


Additional Resources  

I. Diagrams

Here are some illustrations that show how the Four Quadrant model can be applied the field of ecology. If you are already familiar with the Four Quadrant model, but still do not understand some of what you see below, that is okay—just notice what you do understand and let the rest pass right over you, without being overly concerned about comprehending every detail. Much of this material is intended for more advanced students of Integral theory, such as the difference between "inside" and "outside" quadrivia, or the "Integral calculus" shorthand (e.g. 1-p x 3-p x 1-p).

The Four Quadrants


The Eight Zones








II. Description of Integral Ecology: Uniting Multiple Perspectives on the Natural World

Today there is a bewildering diversity of views on ecology and the natural environment. With more than two hundred distinct and valuable perspectives on the natural world—and with scientists, economists, ethicists, activists, philosophers, and others often taking completely different stances on the issues—how can we come to agreement to solve our toughest environmental problems?

In response to this pressing need, Integral Ecology unites valuable insights from multiple perspectives into a comprehensive theoretical framework—one that can be put to use right now. The framework is based on Integral Theory, as well as Ken Wilber’s AQAL model, and is the result of over a decade of research exploring the myriad perspectives on ecology available to us today and their respective methodologies.

Dozens of real-life applications and examples of this framework currently in use are examined, including three in-depth case studies: work with marine fisheries in Hawai’i, strategies of eco-activists to protect Canada’s Great Bear Rainforest, and a study of community development in El Salvador. In addition, eighteen personal practices of transformation are provided for you to increase your own integral ecological awareness.

Integral Ecology provides the most sophisticated application and extension of Integral Theory available today, and as such it serves as a template for any truly integral effort.

Purchase Integral Ecology here.

Download a free 15-page PDF primer of Integral Ecology here.



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