Wilber’s Pre-Trans Fallacy and  Integral Deep Listening



Why Ken Wilber’s  Pre-Trans Fallacy is relevant not only for IDL, but for anyone attempting to make sense of anything that claims to be spiritual.

Two motivated, curious, and intelligent students of IDL have asked me to explain Wilber’s pre-trans fallacy and its relationship to IDL. Here is an overview of Wilber’s “Pre-Trans Fallacy,” in which pre-personal awareness of spirituality are thought to be transpersonal awarenesses of spirituality:

from: http://www.integralworld.net/fallacy.html

“In most popular and scientific views of spirituality, two main categories are postulated:


“This view is common in the field of depth psychology. Human development is pictured as a spiral process, in which as a child we start in an unconscious oneness with the Self, we develop an ego structure by leaving the unity of the Self, and recontact the Self in a more conscious fashion during our second half of life.

According to Wilber, we should at least postulate three broad categories:


“ This view is more in line with developmental psychology (when extended to mystical development) and the esoteric traditions. Now, human development is pictured as a ladder-like process, in which we all start with the body, grow up as a rational adult, and (might) end up as an enlightened individual.”

Now this is the pre/trans fallacy: in the first view, the first, pre-personal category is left out. As a result of this, it merges with the third category, giving us a pre-rational view of spirituality. Pre and trans are confused; more specifically, the prerational is elevated to spiritual status.”

My note: This means that tarot, astrology, lucid dreaming, dream visitations of the dead, clairvoyance, precognition, aura reading, trance channelings, mediumship, past-life memories, near death experiences, intuition, prayer, belief, psychic healing, etc. all are now assumed to be transpersonal, when they are, in fact, pre-personal. We know this because there are accounts of children and criminals doing these things, so development into the rational and personal levels, much less the trans-rational and transpersonal ones, is unnecessary to explain spirituality for people who equate spirituality with the prerational.

The elevationist, or “romantic” model has to claim that the child or criminal was a mystical and transpersonal master in a past life and is now simply remembering what they already knew. However, think about this. Do you really want to do away with the distinction between the pre-personal and the trans-personal? If you do, you end up saying two things: 1) human evolution and development are not necessary, since everyone is already one with spirit; and 2) there really are no meaningful distinctions between spiritual claims, because all is God/love/spirit. The first point is contradicted by the evolutionary process itself, which is developmental, and the second by common sense: there really is a difference between the spirituality of an eight year old and someone who has meditated for forty years.

“In the second view (Wilber’s distinction of three categories instead of two), the prerational is acknowledged as a separate category, in sharp distinction to the trans-rational realm of mysticism.”

“In the first view, the process of rationalization and secularization is understood as anti-spiritual, as is done by the great majority of scientists of religion (Hinduism, Buddhism, sociologists, scholars of comparative religion, scientists, humanists, New Age, New Thought, energy medicine). Religion is on the decline because people have learned to think for themselves.”

My note: In this view, reason is the enemy of both spirituality and religion, because they are the same. Spirituality is the personal seeking of oneness with God while religion is the collective seeking of a relationship with God or divinity, but both use only two categories: religion/spirituality vs. reason. Wilber blames this on the failure of modernism to differentiate spirituality from religion, like it differentiated science, culture, and society.

“In the second view, this only applies to mythical religion (what I have just called the collective seeking of a relationship with God or divinity); mystical religion is still to be discovered by modern men and women, as a process that completes their developmental potentials.”

My note: So Wilber differentiates between religion and spirituality and between collective and intensely personal, interior approaches that are generally labeled mystical.

Wilber also distinguishes between states and stages, as does IDL. This is a very important distinction, because without it you will confuse pre-personal contact with the divine with transpersonal contact. The basic and most important distinction to keep in mind is that states are temporary and followed by a return to “normalcy,” or something close to it, while stages are permanent and represent a new, maintained normalcy.

You see this in IDL interviews. When you become a dream character or the personification of a life issue you access its perspective, which is a state. Sometimes this identification is palpable: you can see it in others and feel it in yourself. It is transformational. Notice that anyone can do so, if they are willing to get in and stay in role. It does not indicate transpersonal stage development, but it may indeed indicate access to a perspective that is more one with everything than “you” are. To access a transpersonal stage of development with IDL, you need to not only do regular interviewing, but apply those recommendations that make sense to you. This allows you to naturally expand your sense of self into a broader, more inclusive developmental stage. This process is on-going and open-ended. IDL does not claim there is a definite end point at which you are “enlightened.” It is more a process of continuous awakening.

Notice that by this distinction between states and stages, that most things and experiences that call themselves “spiritual” and “mystical” are temporary state experiences. When people do not distinguish between states and stages (and most do not, because they are not familiar with the pre-trans fallacy), they think that when they or someone else achieves some state of mystical oneness, that they have achieved or attained enlightenment, or at least some elevated developmental level of oneness.

However, this is easily disproven. Just interview or read over the histories of people who have had near death experiences, which are genuine, transformational, spiritual experiences. What you will find is that these people have experienced spiritual states of oneness, not achieved an ongoing higher stage of development. In fact, many of these people spend the rest of their lives pretty much the way they did before; some become chronically depressed, pining after their “lost” opening into a reality of unconditional love and peace. This is hardly a “spiritual” way to live one’s life.

IDL also notices that most people who can lucid dream are no more spiritual because of it, meaning that the experience of lucid dreaming is access to a state of higher level awakening while dreaming, but does not necessarily translate into spiritual anything or into a higher level of development. This can be said about almost all mystical experiences. Just because a person has a state opening into some experience of awakening or oneness does not imply that they have advanced in their developmental stage. But these people generally assume that they have, and if they are charismatic, they can get a lot of other people to believe it too.

This is because state openings are transformational. They convince people that the world is much bigger than they thought it was. These experiences “open” people to new possibilities. However, their interpretation is subject to the world view of the individual. A scientist who has a state opening will interpret it differently from a Christian, who will interpret it differently from a Buddhist or Moslem. Who is correct? The point is that all are correct and all are reporting subjectively-conditioned experiences, that is, experiences that are partially dependent on their belief system and frame of reference. The old Indian story of the Blind Men and the Elephant, as interpreted by John Godfrey Saxe, is a good illustration of this:

It was six men of Indostan

To learning much inclined,

Who went to see the Elephant

(Though all of them were blind),

That each by observation

Might satisfy his mind

(They conclude that the elephant is like a wall, snake, spear, tree, fan or rope, depending upon where they touch. They have a heated debate that does not come to physical violence. But in Saxe’s version, the conflict is never resolved…)


So oft in theologic wars,

The disputants, I ween,

Rail on in utter ignorance

Of what each other mean,

And prate about an Elephant

Not one of them has seen!

Of course, people do really “see” and “hear” and “experience” the “elephant” of mystical experience, however, few recognize the subjective and interpretive elements that their own background inevitably brings to the experience. Most people who have state openings do not recognize this. Instead, they are sure that they have seen the Light, the Truth, Infinite Love, and God. There is nothing that you can say to them that will lead them to understand that their experience was conditioned by their particular world view, and it is a mistake to try.

This is another reason why IDL interviewing is so important and why I wrote a book on interviews with people who had near death experiences. They demonstrate that state openings are both individually conditioned and that our individual perceptual blinders can be largely removed when we are willing to take different perspectives from our own personal, original experience. This is as true for dreams and mundane waking experience as it is for near death and other mystical experiences. When we do so, the result is an expanded world view and practical recommendations that make the original state opening (near death or mystical experience) relevant to the current needs of the individual, even forty years after it occurred.

IDL, therefore, takes a conservative position. This means that it assumes that spiritual, spiritual healing, and psychic experiences are pre-personal state openings unless there is very good reason to believe otherwise. What would constitute such good reasons?

The first is the presupposition of reason. Development to the transpersonal and trans-rational passes through reason. This means that if a person cannot or will not reason, be logical, or think straight, or question their beliefs, or practice doubt and skepticism, it is highly unlikely that they have accessed trans-rational stages. Yes, they may well have had state openings. However, we have already established that children and criminals can do that. Therefore, IDL asks, “so what?” Developmentally, the ability to think and to question what you think, as well as to question the conclusions of others, particularly those who make remarkable claims, is a pre-requisite to development into transpersonal stages. You can have all sorts of transpersonal openings and mystical experiences without being rational: you can have oneness with nature, God, and formless sunyata without being rational, and history is full of examples of same. However, you cannot maintain these openings as ongoing, stable stage development unless you have first learned to question and think through your beliefs and the claims others make about spirituality, the soul, reincarnation, God, and everything else.

The second is that just because something calls itself “scientific” doesn’t mean it is. To be scientific means that something is subjected to the three strands of the empirical method. First, it outlines steps to follow: “Look through the microscope and you will see this…” “Follow the steps of this recipe to make this type of bread…” “Meditate in this fashion in order to experience this…” Then it requires you to actually perform the experiment. The third step is that your results have to be subjected to duplication via peer review. If they can’t be duplicated, then you don’t have a claim to a rational process and therefore it is neither scientific nor “spiritual” in the sense of trans-rational or transpersonal.

Homeopathy, radiesthesia, reiki, and other “vibrational” and “energy healing” modalities fail this test because their claims haven’t been duplicated in double-blind studies. It does not mean that they do not work. As I discussed in my earlier post on “Finding a Healthy Approach to Terminal Illness,” as a placebo it will be successful thirty percent of the time. However, this does not make something duplicatable, empirical, or “scientific.” Any pre-rational modality will have this degree of success, unless it is downright toxic.

There are many commonly used terms that are generally used to point to the transpersonal but generally either indicate temporary state openings by people at prepersonal, belief and faith-based, and mythic levels of development, or else just represent pre-personal beliefs, faith, and myths that are not differentiated from the transpersonal because there is no understanding or recognition of the pre-trans fallacy. This is a major reason why IDL avoids words like “God,” “spirituality,” “soul,” “divinity,” “intuition,” “energy,” or “quantum.” When we use these words they usually blur or ignore the difference between pre personal and transpersonal, with the result being either that the pre-rational is elevated to trans-rational or the trans-rational is reduced to the pre-rational. Does it help your listeners to not differentiate between these two? In the case of “energy” or “quantum,” or “neuro-linguistic programming,” these words carry a scientific cache that impresses a lot of people that one’s approach is rational when it may simply be using impressive terminology to clothe prepersonal beliefs that have not been shown to be duplicatable.

Consequently, IDL considers it wise to be careful and limited in how such terms are used. They easily create confusion and the appearance of both agreement and trans-personal spirituality where there is neither. People use these terms meaning one thing and their listeners hear them and think they mean something completely different, generally that pre-personal spirituality is the same as transpersonal spirituality. If there is no difference, then using such terms works. If there are indeed real differences, then using such terms implies agreement where genuine, important distinctions exist and need to be understood. Therefore, they probably should be avoided unless they point to a transpersonal and trans-rational developmental stage – not just some state experience of mystical oneness.

Students of IDL do not need to agree with me on this in order to practice IDL. I could be wrong; I am subject to the biases and prejudices of my world view just as others are. I am sharing with you my own biases, prejudices, and assumptions, based on my experience, but I am open to your doubts, skepticism, and particularly your reasoned arguments why these issues should be approached differently.

When you learn to recognize the distinctions between pre-personal and transpersonal approaches to spirituality, as well as “states” and “stages,” you will begin to recognize, both in your reading and in your discussions, those who do not. You will recognize that they are living in a different reality than you are, because they do not see or make the distinctions that you do. This does not mean that you are “better” than them or “more enlightened” than they are, only that you have adopted a world view that includes and transcends theirs. Consequently, it is more adequate for understanding both spirituality and how the world works. It is more adaptive, because it is broader and more flexible. However, as an analogy, people who have access to the internet are not “better” than people who don’t; they just have access to tools that the others lack, and that access possesses certain developmental advantages.

I recommend that you not attempt to point out to people these distinctions between the pre-personal and the trans-personal or between state and stage experience unless they express a desire to know or unless you put it out there as general information. Otherwise they are likely to feel they are being made wrong by you, feel personally attacked, and get defensive. The result is that they won’t trust you or anything you say. Belief, spirituality, and the terminology that people use to express such things are “sacred” for many people, meaning that their identity is so closely wrapped up with their beliefs, their definition of spirituality, and the terms they use to describe it, that to question them or raise doubts about it immediately shuts down conversation. Respect where people are in their development, which is different from agreeing with it or believing it is “where they need to be or should be.” Honor their truths and their path while focusing on what works for you. If it truly works, they may become interested enough to enquire; if they do not, do not attempt to rescue them from their own assumptions, perspectives, and beliefs unless they ask you to, because to do so merely immerses you in the Drama Triangle as well, where you are unlikely to be of much help.

Note that I differ from Wilber on this. He believes it is more important to use terminology that is comfortable with people to build bridges of familiarity than to insist on distinctions that will alienate the listener, even if they are more truthful. He explains what he “really” means elsewhere, but continues to use common terminology. But words convey meanings; if the meanings you want to convey are not adequate to a word or a term, clarity, truth, and a higher expression of love require what seems like a higher degree of integrity. Please view these comments as an invitation to discussion and debate rather than as some definitive statement of truth!

Below you will find Wilber’s own description of the Pre-Trans Fallacy, taken from passages in two different texts:

FromWilber’s Integral Spirituality, pp. 69-71:

Confusing pre and post—or confusing pre and trans—is called the pre/post fallacy or the pre/trans fallacy, and we will see that an understanding of this confusion is very helpful when it comes to the role of religion in the modern world. In any developmental sequence—pre-rational to rational to trans-rational, or subconscious to self-conscious to superconscious, or pre-verbal to verbal to trans-verbal, or prepersonal to personal to transpersonal—the “pre” and “trans” components are often confused, and that confusion goes in both ways. Once they are confused, some researchers take all trans-rational realities and try to reduce them to pre-rational infantilisms (e.g., Freud), while others take some of the pre-rational infantile elements and elevate them to trans-rational glory (e.g. Jung). Both that reductionism and that elevationism follow from the same pre/post fallacy.”

“This is a constant problem with, and for, spirituality. Particularly when you deal with the meditative, contemplative, or mystical states of spiritual experience—most of which indeed are non-rational—it might seem that all of the non-rational states are spiritual, and all the rational states are not spiritual. The most common example is dividing the states into Dionysian (nonrational) and Apollonian (rational), and then identifying Dionysian with spiritual. But that conceals and hides the fact that there is not just “non-rational,” but “pre-rational” and “trans- rational.” Even Nietzsche came to see that there are two drastically different Dionysian states, (pre and trans). But once the pre/trans fallacy is made, it appears that anything that is not rational, is Spirit. Instead of pre-rational, rational, and trans-rational, you only have rational and nonrational, and the trouble starts there.”

“If you do not believe in Spirit, then you will take every trans-rational event and reduce it to pre-rational impulses and preverbal twaddle, perhaps claiming it is regressive, nothing but a holdover from the oceanic fusion days of infancy. You are a grand reductionist, and your names are legion, and happily you go about the day, collapsing trans-rational to pre-rational—reducing any experience of Spirit to a bit of undigested meat, and God is something you can simply outgrow, if you just keep trying. With this sleight of hand, this intellectual bit of laziness, all genuine trans-rational realities are dismissed.”

“…a retro-Romantic worldview, which is unnecessary and unfortunate, in my opinion, because it confuses states and stages (and thus equates childhood states with advanced stages), eulogizes pre-rational as trans-rational, and loses discriminating capacity when it comes to the difference between, say, preconventional (levels) and postconventional (levels).” (p. 336)

“If, on the other hand, you believe in Spirit, and anything non-rational is Spirit, then it appears that every pre-rational twitch or twinge—no matter how infantile, childish, regressive, self-centered, irrational, or egocentric—is somehow deeply spiritual or religious, and so you go about reinforcing those areas in your awareness that will most fight maturity. Every Peter-Pan piety is encouraged—under the name of Spirit—as pre-rational is gloriously elevated to trans-rational. This makes even my selfish, pre-rational, preconventional impulses appear especially spiritual—yet they are not beyond reason, but beneath it.”

“This also leads, perhaps most sadly, to a rampant anti-intellectualism (instead of trans- intellectualism, which transcends and includes). This anti-intellectualism and anti-rationalism (that quickly slides into pre-rationalism), unfortunately fosters and encourages a narcissistic approach to meditation and spiritual studies (as it slides from worldcentric to ethnocentric to egocentric). This anti-intellectual narcissism is extremely common in popular culture and in alternative colleges devoted to spirituality. Egocentric feelings are confused with worldcentric feelings, just because both are feelings, and under this pre/post confusion, anything is considered spiritual if I just feel it and emote it really hard. If I can just feel my narcissism with great gusto, I’m getting closer to God (or Goddess or Buddha-nature), and thus “universal care” slides to “selfish” quicker than you can say the Me Generation. This fearless and exuberant embrace of shallowness has marked too many of the alternative approaches to spirituality.”

From the Forward, The Eye of Spirit, Wilber, 1997:

“Human development thus proceeds, so to speak, from unconscious Heaven to conscious Hell to conscious Heaven. I started writing both books (The Atman Project and Up From Eden) to validate that Romantic notion… But the more I worked on the books, the more it became obvious that the Romantic view was hopelessly muddled…

Hence, the overall Romantic view: one starts out in unconscious Heaven, an unconscious union with the Divine; one then loses this unconscious union, and thus plunges into conscious Hell; one can then regain the Divine union, but now in a higher and conscious fashion.

The only problem with that view is that the first step–the loss of the unconscious union with the Divine–is an absolute impossibility. All things are one with the Divine Ground–it is, after all, the Ground of all being! To lose oneness with that Ground is to cease to exist.

Follow it closely: there are only two general stances you can have in relation to the Divine Ground: since all things are one with Ground, you can either be aware of that oneness, or you can be unaware of that oneness. That is, you can be conscious or unconscious of your union with the Divine Ground: those are the only two choices you have. And since the Romantic view is that you start out, as an infant, in an unconscious union with Ground, you cannot then lose that union! You have already lost consciousness of the union; you cannot then further lose the union itself or you would cease to be! So if you are unconscious of your union, it can’t get any worse, ontologically speaking. That is already the pits of alienation. You are already living in Hell, as it were; you are already immersed in samsara, only you don’t realize it–you haven’t the awareness to recognize this burning fact. And so that is more the actual state of the infantile self: unconscious Hell.

What does start to happen, however, is that you begin to wake up to the alienated world in and around you. You go from unconscious Hell to conscious Hell, and being conscious of Hell, of samsara, of lacerating existence, is what makes growing up–and being an adult–such a nightmare of misery and alienation. The infant self is relatively peaceful, not because it is living in Heaven, but because it isn’t aware enough to register the flames of Hell all around it…

As the infant self grows in awareness and consciousness, it slowly becomes aware of the intrinsic pain of existence, the torment inherent in samsara, the mechanism of madness coiled inherently in the manifest world: it begins to suffer. It is introduced to the first Noble Truth, a jolting initiation into the world of perception, whose sole mathematics is the torture-inducing fire of unquenched and unquenchable desire. This is not a desire-ridden world that was lacking in the infant’s previous “wonderful” immersion state, but simply a world that dominated that state unconsciously, a world which the self now slowly, painfully, tragically becomes aware of.

And so, as the self grows in awareness, it moves from unconscious Hell to conscious Hell, and there it may spend its entire life, seeking above all else the numbing consolations that will blunt its raw and ragged feelings, blur its etchings of despair. Its life becomes a map of morphine, and folding itself into the anesthetic glow of all its compensations, it might even manage to convince itself, at least for an endearing blush of rose-tinted time, that the dualistic world is an altogether pretty thing.

But alternatively, the self might continue its growth and development into the genuinely spiritual domains: transcending the separate-self sense, it uncoils in the very Divine. The union with the Divinea union or oneness that had been present but unconscious since the start–now flares forth in consciousness in a brilliant burst of illumination and a shock of the unspeakably ordinary: it realizes its Supreme Identity with Spirit itself, announced, perhaps, in nothing more than the cool breeze of a bright spring day, this outrageously obvious affair.

Now, there is indeed a falling away from Godhead, from Spirit, from the primordial Ground, and this is the truth the Romantics are trying to get at, before they slip into their pre/trans fallacies. This falling away is called involution, the movement whereby all things fall away from a consciousness of their union with the Divine, and thus imagine themselves to be separate and isolated monads, alienated and alienating. And once involution has occurred–and Spirit becomes unconsciously involved in the lower and lowest forms of its own manifestation–then evolution can occur: Spirit unfolds in a great spectrum of consciousness, from the Big Bang to matter to sensation to perception to impulse to image to symbol to concept to reason to psychic to subtle to causal occasions, on the way to its own shocking self-recognition, Spirit’s own self-realization and self-resurrection. And in each of those stages–from matter to body to mind to soul to spirit–evolution becomes more and more conscious, more and more are, more and more realized, more and more awake–with all the joys, and all the terrors, inherently involved in that dialectic of awakening.

At each stage of this process of Spirit’s return to itself, we–you and I–nonetheless remember, perhaps vaguely, perhaps intensely, that we were once consciously one with the very Divine itself. It is there, this memory trace, in the back of our awareness, pulling and pushing us to realize, to awaken, to remember who and what we always already are.

In fact, all things, we might surmise, intuit to one degree or another that their very Ground is Spirit itself. All things are driven, urged, pushed and pulled to manifest this realization. And yet, prior to that divine awakening, all things seek Spirit in a way that actually prevents the realization: or else we would be realized right now! We seek Spirit in ways that prevent it.

We seek for Spirit in the world of time; but Spirit is timeless, and cannot there be found. We seek for Spirit in the world of space; but Spirit is spaceless, and cannot there be found. We seek for Spirit in this or that object, shiny and alluring and full of fame or fortune; but Spirit is not an object, and it cannot be seen or grasped in the world of commodities and commotion.

In other words, we are seeking for Spirit in ways that prevent its realization, and force us to settle for substitute gratifications, which propel us through, and lock us into, the wretched world of time and terror, space and death, sin and separation, loneliness and consolation.

And that is the Atman project.
The Atman project: the attempt to find Spirit in ways that prevent it and force substitute gratifications. And, as you will

see in the following pages, the entire structure of the manifest universe is driven by the Atman project, a project that continues until we–until you and I–awaken to the Spirit whose substitutes we seek in the world of space and time and grasping and despair. The nightmare of history is the nightmare of the Atman project, the fruitless search in time for that which is finally timeless, a search that inherently generates terror and torment, a self ravaged by repression, paralyzed by guilt, beset with the frost and fever of wretched alienation–a torture that is only undone in the radiant Heart when the great search itself uncoils, when the self-contraction relaxes its attempt to find God, real or substitute: the movement in time is undone by the great Unborn, the great Uncreate, the great Emptiness in the Heart of the Kosmos itself.

And so, as you read this book, try to remember: remember the great event when you breathed out and created this entire Kosmos; remember the great emptying when you threw yourself out as the entire World, just to see what would happen. Remember the forms and forces through which you have traveled thus far: from galaxies to planets, to verdant plants reaching upward for the sun, to animals stalking day and night, restless with their weary search, through primal men and women, yearning for the light, to the very person now holding this book: remember who and what you have been, what you have done, what you have seen, who you actually are in all those guises, the masks of the God and the Goddess, the masks of your own Original Face.

Posted in Essays

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