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December 9, 1997

The Pre / Trans Fallacy

Clark Powell

NOTE: This discontinues a spiritual tale.

Ever heard of the "pre/trans fallacy"? Anyone interested in examining the search for the Ultimate should not be without this conceptual oyster-opener. Like the idea of "authentic" and "legitimate" religion discussed in the last column, this very useful and cool notion called the pre/trans fallacy (PTF) was invented by the extraordinary scholar-practitioner Ken Wilber.

I am tempted to say that until one has read Wilber, one should consider himself illiterate in the field of spiritual psychology. Ken Wilber is pretty much da man in this heady arena. Witness the breathless phrases from fellow authors and critics on the back cover of Eye to Eye, the 1983 collection of essays, which includes one on the Pre-Trans Fallacy: Wilber is "the most important thinker in psychology today" (James Fadiman), "truly a genius of our time" (Francis Vaughan), "the foremost writer on consciousness and transpersonal psychology in the world today" (Roger Walsh), and "Wilber will likely do for consciousness what Freud did for psychology" (Jean Houston).

Okay, so what's the pre/trans fallacy, or PTF? "This fallacy," Wilber begins, "has infected psychologists from Freud to Jung, philosophers from Bergson to Nietzsche, sociologists from Levy- Bruhl to Auguste Comte; it lurks as equally behind the mythological and romantic world views as behind the rational and scientific; it exists to this day in both the attempts to champion mysticism and the attempts to deny it."

Wilber traces an outline of the PTF quickly: "The essence of the pre/trans fallacy is easy enough to state. We begin by simply assuming that human beings do in fact have access to three general realms of being and knowing - the sensory, the mental, and the spiritual. Those three realms can be stated in any number of different ways: subconscious, self-conscious, and super-conscious, or prerational, rational, and transrational, or prepersonal, personal, and transpersonal. The point is simply that, for example, since prerational and transrational are both, in their own ways non-rational, then they appear quite similar or even identical to the untutored eye. Once this confusion occurs - the confusion of "pre" and "trans" - then one of two things inevitably happens: the transrational realms are reduced to prepersonal status, or the prerational realms are elevated to transrational glory."

Note: we assume (Wilber's italics) three general realms of being. This three-part division of consciousness has wide resonance across cultures and disciplines - three seems to be the number of magic not only for fables but for worldwide theologies, for developmental as well as a number of ontological maps of consciousness in psychology and philosophy. Whether it is the id, ego, and superego of Freud, or Hegel's nature, self, and spirit, or even the hell, earth, heaven of the Bible, these three divisions are seen as both stages in the developmental view and as layers in the ontological view, in which the three stages co-exist.

We also must assume one other thing. All things, naturally, change, we all know this - "only change itself is changeless," as Diogenes said. But to say that change is "evolutionary" or "developmental" is to presume that change has a direction or purpose. The world-at-large seen in this way, Wilber says, "appears to be evolving in a definite direction, namely, toward higher levels of structural organization, toward greater holism, integration, awareness, consciousness, and so on. Indeed, a brief glance at the evolutionary record to date - matter to plant to lower animal to mammal to human - shows a pronounced growth toward increasing complexity and awareness."

There is another and equally universal movement, the mirror of evolution, called in biblical terminology "the Fall," and this anti-evolution (Wilber calls it "involution" but I prefer "devolution"). This is the movement or disintegration from higher to lower levels of unity and subtlety. This cosmic "regression" is universally recognized, whether it is called the Big Bang or the Night of Brahma or Original Sin. Development against de-velopment, unity versus entropy, "good" versus "bad," the twin processes of evolution and devolution form the electric negative and positive, and both poles are necessary for that old Universal revolution.

But it is in the evolutionary process of growth and development, not the devolutionary or regressive one, that the pre/trans fallacy comes into play. If the PTF is the confusion of the prerational with the transrational, then how do we tell prepersonal regression from transpersonal progression? What are distinguishing characteristics of these states or stages, the prerational, rational, and transrational?

Of course there are more than just three stages of change (Wilber discussed eight such levels in his book Up From Eden, and dozens more are feasible), but the point is that the higher and lower structures of consciousness are often mistaken in the reflections of other stages and are either falsely reduced or falsely exalted. To use an extreme example, this is like mistaking the non-egoic awareness of a coma patient for the non-egoic consciousness of a Buddha, or vice versa.

To drastically simplify (much to say, but little space), the levels that can be considered prerational are characterized by sheer animal instincts and bodily sensation, magic-thinking and membership-participation. Though they both are beyond the bounds of ego, the prepersonal fusion of the infant is radically different from the transpersonal transcendence of the sage. The egoic dissolution experienced in mystic participation with a believer-group in will-less obedience to a "God as other," as some infallible, all-powerful master or deity has under the name of righteous transrational, conducted prerational horrors - human sacrifice, mass suicides, or genocides (which, via PTF, are nicely called Crusades or jihads).

Actually there are two types of PTF, which Wilber dubs PTF-1 and PTF-2. According to the worldview of orthodox science, there is no higher goal of development than the rational stage, no room for a wistful or superstitious belief in higher realms. PTF-1 operates from the rational level, but cannot or will not recognize that the rational level is not the acme of human consciousness.

The view of orthodox religion, on the other hand, sees development as moving down from God to man, from heaven to earth, and thus history is a history of a Great Fall. According to this view, we begin as alienated, mistaken, or sinful, but can, via a particular method or belief or ritual, be taken into a divine realm beyond the scope of the isolated individual, however rational he may think himself to be.

Both views are right in some ways, and wrong in some ways. The point here, however, is that while the "religious" worldview is prone to continually mistake a prerational fixation for transcendental reality, the "scientific" worldview is prone to make the opposite error - to be blind to actual transcendence, and write off all mystic experience as prerational, wish-fulfilling nonsense.

In short, scientific skeptics tend to downplay, if not deny the transrational (PTF-1), where religious believers often overlook the prerational elements of their group's belief system (PTF-2). Striking examples of PTF-2 arise with tragic regularity: Jim Jones and the People's Temple, Waco, Bhagwan Shri Rajneesh, Hale-Bopp. All assumed themselves superior, in on some transrational secret that normal rational folks just could not understand. Actually, they mistook their prerational fixations for transrational grandeur - PTF-2.

A classic instance of PTF-1 at work might be seen in some admitting psychiatrist for a state mental hospital, who over time will see 10,000 individuals who claim to be Christ, let's say. The psychiatrist makes a judgement: this individual is deluded and grandiose. Into the locked ward! And 9,999 times he may be right. But suppose Christ Himself showed up. Guess what, Jesus: into the locked ward with all your pals. Since he recognizes only the rational and the prerational levels, our psychiatrist-scientist can only conclude that since this newest Christ isn't rational in a socially acceptable, self-actualized way - well, then, he has to be crazy - PTF-1.

Why all this about Wilber's pre-trans fallacy? First, because I think it's a cool idea, very fertile, and second because it provides a way to talk about a personal spiritual trek as an example of two apparently opposing and compelling worldviews, the scientific and the mystic. As I look back, it seems I have oscillated between heartfelt belief on one hand, and skeptical questioning on the other, and I have regularly committed both PTF-1 and PTF-2 depending upon which way I felt or believed at the time. The oscillation grows finer as I grow older, but still the struggle continues. Meanwhile, I try to take the truth from both mystic and scientist, and also try to discern the false from both.

Let this be enough for a while. Suffice it to say that the spiritual trek is still underway, but let's give writing about it a rest. Maybe I can get back to it later, but meanwhile there's a lot of stuff to do, and I think all of us "seekers" sometimes need to wake up from "waking up."

For now let's take a break from the subject with a funny email I got from my friend Joe Newman last week - funny but with two punch lines that linger:

A weary pilgrim -- a seeker, as we say in the industry -- spent many, many hours in meditation trying to reach the divine essence, which some call God. Well, the pilgrim reached God, who frowned and told him, "Quit wasting so damn much time meditating!"

Later, the same pilgrim spotted a tall, rope-like object stretching as far as he could see into the sky. The pilgrim dutifully climbed it to the very top -- a dangerous journey of some weeks and months. At the top he found again, sure enough, the divine essence. "Tell me, holy one, the true meaning of life," said the exhausted pilgrim. To which God smiled and replied, "Well, life is like a beanstalk -- isn't it?"

As Brother Dave Gardner used to say, Beloved, weigh this. Onward.


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