Ken Wilber’s Fallacious “pre/trans fallacy” and the Condescension of Children

This fallacy says that people mistakenly believe that children are connected to the Divine in a similar way as those mystics who transcend ego. I don’t think this is mistaken at all.

The infantile fusion state is the greatest point of alienation or separation from all of the higher levels and higher worlds whose total integration or union constitutes mysticism…

[By equating them] you either elevate that infantile state to a mystical union it does not possess, or you negate all genuine mysticism by claiming it is nothing but a regression to infantile narcissism and oceanic adualism.

-Ken Wilber, Grace and Grit, 1991

This is one area where I almost completely disagree with Wilber: his “pre/trans fallacy”. It’s something that he feels quite strongly, it seems, or at least he did at one time. He said he feels “anger” at the “mysticismis-regression” notion.

Ken Wilber

Ken Wilber is a brilliant philosopher, mystic, transpersonal psychologist, pioneering researcher of consciousness, integral theorist, author of dozens of books, and much more. I really enjoy many of his thoughts, perspectives, and frameworks. But this is one area where I feel strongly that he is off the mark. We all makes mistakes, and I think this is one that I’d like to help set aright.

To flesh out further what this “pre/trans fallacy” is, let me quote from his Grace and Grit (which is an excellent book):

Many theorists, following Jung, maintained that since mysticism is a subject/object union, then this early undifferentiated fusion state must be what is somehow recaptured in mystical unity. Being an earlier follower of Jung, I had agreed with that position, and had indeed written several essays explaining it. But as with much of Jung, it was now a position I found untenable. And more than that, annoying, because it unmistakably meant that mysticism is a regressive state of some sort of another. This was, as they say, a real sore spot with me.

-Ken Wilber

Prior to the emergence of the “separate self” or ego in our cognitive development, the infant exists in a state of subject/object fusion. They cannot tell the difference between their “self” and anything else, the “objective” world “out there.” They exist in an oceanic oneness. There is no “self” to speak of in their mind. All is just being, and there are no dividing lines, no subject and object, no this and that, no duality. It is in the development of our “self” in our childhood that all dualities, ego, and “self” emerge in the mind. We “Fall” from that oneness in God or Ultimate Reality, as I’ve written about before.

But Wilber doesn’t think this is a fall from God at all, it seems. The infant is not in God to begin with, but is in a tragic alienated state of the greatest narcissism and selfishness. All is self, but of the most egocentric kind, in his view.

This, incidentally, is why the Christian mystics maintain that you are born in sin or separation or alienation; it’s not something that you do after you are born, but something that you are from birth or conception, and something that can only be overcome through growth and development and evolution, from matter to mind to spirit. The infantile material fusion state, in my opinion, is the start and lowest point of that growth, not some sort of mystical prefiguration of its end.

-Ken Wilber

Here Wilber is referring to “original sin,” that we are all born depraved, separate, alienated from God, right from the get go, perhaps from the very moment of conception. But I have not read many mystics that think that way. Most seem to think that we are essentially, fundamentally, eternally Divine. Perhaps I have not read the same mystics as Wilber has. Yes, some early Christian thinkers thought we were totally depraved and fallen from the very beginning, perhaps even in the sexual act that conceives the baby, which is likely why they demonized sexuality, as in St. Augustine. Anything and everything that brought a child into this world was evil, sin, alienated from God, wrong, problematic. Even the woman was wrong, tempting man (Adam) by her simply being. Wilber seems to agree with this tragic worldview, where everything starts off wrong, the “lowest point of growth,” the most alienated from God, furthest from the Divine.

Wilber sees the spiritual journey as essentially and primarily an ascension, from lower to higher states, always progressive and an improvement to where we start:

The early developmental stages are largely prepersonal, in that a separate and individuated personal ego has not yet emerged. The middle stages of growth are personal or egoic. And the highest stages are transpersonal or transegoic.

-Ken Wilber

He thinks that equating the “pre” states with the “trans” states is a great error.

My point is that people tend to confuse the “pre” with the “trans” states because they superficially look alike. Once you have equated the infantile fusion state – which is prepersonal – with the mystical union – which is transpersonal – then one of two things happens. You either elevate that infantile state to a mystical union it does not possess, or you negate all genuine mysticism by claiming it is nothing but a regression to infantile narcissism and oceanic adualism. Jung and the Romantic movement often do the first – they tend to elevate pre-egoic and prerational states to transegoic and transrational glory. They’re “elevationists.” And Freud and his followers do just the opposite: they reduce all transrational, transegoic, genuinely mystical states to prerational, pre-egoic, infantile states. They’re “reductionists.” Both camps are half right, half wrong. Genuine mysticism does exist, and there’s precisely nothing infantile about it at all. Saying otherwise is like confusing preschool with postgraduate school; it’s kind of crazy, and totally confuses the situation.

-Ken Wilber

I don’t think people “confuse” these states because they merely look alike, but that they are quite the same kind of consciousness. I believe the movement from the infant state into adulthood and then the transcendence of self is much more of a cyclical movement, an eternal return, from the One to the One, “from the Alone to the Alone” (as Plotinus said), from oneness and nonduality into separateness and duality and then back again into oneness, from God into a “fallen” state and then an at-one-ment that brings us back into God’s Presence, a descent and then an ascent, a forgetting and a remembrance (perhaps related to Plato’s anamnesis), an emanation from the Highest into a lower estate which then climbs back to its original High estate, falling from Light into darkness and then returning to Light. There are many metaphors we could use for this.

Wilber thinks that the infant does not possess “mystical union” because it never dissociated from the oceanic oneness to begin with.

It’s not a union, it’s an indissociation. A union is two separate things brought together in a higher integration. In infantile fusion, there are not two things to begin with, just a global undifferentiation. You cannot integrate that which is not first differentiated. Besides, even if we say that this infantile state is a union of subject and object, let me repeat that the subject here is merely a sensorimotor subject undifferentiated from a sensorimotor world, it is not a total integrated subject of all levels united with all higher worlds. In other words, it isn’t even a prototype of mysitcal union, it is rather the precise opposite of the mystical state.

But the mystical experience is not merely a union of two into one, but the realization that what is one has always been one, and that the twoness was a kind of illusion (as Einstein noted), an error, ignorance (avidya), delusion, a mirage in consciousness, a misconception of the dualistic mind. It is not the Truth. It is not the One. At-one-ment is discovered to not be the bringing together of two separate things into One, but the radical realization that they were never separate to begin with! As Father Thomas Keating, one of Wilber’s spiritual teachers, once said:

The chief thing that separates us from God is the thought that we are separated from God.

-Thomas Keating

It is a thought, a conception, an idea held in the intellect of the mind, in the contents of consciousness. It is not consciousness itself, pure awareness, which is undivided in itself. God is One and remains undivided in its Self. And although our mind constructs this veil which makes us feel separate from the Whole, from the Divine, from God’s Presence, at-one in Reality, we are never actually separate from it. I think this is what Paul was getting at in Romans:

For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

-Romans 8:38-39

Nothing actually or ultimately separates us from God into two, into dualisms, into a multiplicity. Thus, there can be no two things that are actually coming back together into wholeness, into oneness. Rather it is the dissolving of the veil of twoness, of duality. That veil is pierced, lifted, that illusory appearance of separation falls away and reveals the One in which we are, and will always be. God’s Love always maintains this oneness, despite our perceptions of duality. God’s Love is that underlying oneness that makes this universe a cohesive Whole. The dualities we perceive in consciousness are merely perceptions, images, shadows on the cave wall. They are not the real Reality.

That “global undifferentiation” is the One! It is God! It is the Whole! It is the Divine. It is the “trailing clouds of glory” from which we come, as one of Wilber’s “Romantics” put it:

Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting;
The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,
          Hath had elsewhere its setting
               And cometh from afar;
          Not in entire forgetfulness,
          And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come 
               From God, who is our home:
Heaven lies about us in our infancy!
Shades of the prison-house begin to close
               Upon the growing Boy,
But he beholds the light, and whence it flows,
               He sees it in his joy;
The Youth, who daily farther from the east
     Must travel, still is Nature’s priest,
          And by the vision splendid
          Is on his way attended;
At length the Man perceives it die away,
And fade into the light of common day.

-William Wordsworth, excerpt from “Ode on Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood

Wilber seems to be saying that infants are the most alienated or separated from God, from the One, from the Divine. I don’t believe that at all. It also doesn’t seem to account for the mythology of the “Fall” of humanity at all. From what have we fallen if we start at the bottom, from the floor? It seems to be the view of one who has never had a child of their own, never seen a child born, never held an infant in their arms and looked into their absolutely innocent pure eyes.

I think we are at-one in God in all ways when we are born, which is perhaps known as “original blessing,” “original innocence,” “original innocence,” “unwoundedness,” or “original participation.” In the Judeo-Christian scriptures, all of creation starts off “good,” and the human is “very good,” and walks in the Presence of God in the Garden. We are created in purity, in perfection, in innocence, in the “image and likeness of God.” If we start off wrong, depraved, sinners, alienated in our essential created nature, then it seems there is no hope for us. Rather, I perceive that we start off exactly right, and the emergence of ego in our childhood is the very thing that makes us begin to feel that we are wrong, ashamed, selfish, narcissistic, dividing ourselves from others, etc. It is our Fall.

Here are some thoughts from Fr. Richard Rohr, one of the greatest modern Christian mystics, on this “original blessing” rather than “original sin”:

We have heard the phrase so often that we don’t get the existential shock of what “created in the image and likeness of God” is saying about us. If this is true—and I believe it is—our family of origin is divine. We were created by a loving God to be love in the world. Our core is original blessing, not original sin. Our starting point is “very good” (Genesis 1:31) and surely not “total depravity” or “sinners in the hands of an angry god.” All the good theology in the world cannot make up for a basically negative anthropology.

-Richard Rohr

All of creation and each of us have received original blessing. Yet we have been conditioned to focus on the negative in ourselves and others. Think of a negative phrase you have said aloud or thought to yourself that stems from a sense of shame rather than your inherent dignity.

-Richard Rohr

The Judeo-Christian creation story says that we were created in the very “image and likeness” of God (Genesis 1:26) out of generative love. The focus is original blessing instead of original sin (which comes two chapters later, in Genesis 3). We are first sent out with cosmic hope rather than a big problem that must be solved. The Holy Spirit holds this divine image within every created thing, and becomes its “soul.” It drives us toward “life, and life more abundantly” (John 10:10). When we start in a positive way instead of with a problem, there is a much greater chance we will remain positive as we move forward. Even the business world today knows that a vision statement must precede and inform the mission statement. As Matthew Fox taught many years ago, Christianity’s contrived “Fall-Redemption” spirituality just keeps digging us into a deeper and deeper hole (my words!). We must return to our original “Creation Spirituality” for the foundational reform of Christianity.

-Richard Rohr

We must all overcome the illusion of separateness. It is the primary task of religion to communicate not worthiness but union, to reconnect people to their original identity “hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:3). The Bible calls the state of separateness “sin.” God’s job description is to draw us back into primal and intimate relationship. “My dear people, we are already children of God; what we will be in the future has not yet been fully revealed, and all I do know is that we shall be like God” (1 John 3:2).

-Richard Rohr

Rohr notes that it is “union” above, again, like Wilber, and this is the traditional language that has been used through history. I think he uses it in the sense of being “one,” not necessarily of two coming into oneness. If it truly “reconnecting” us to our original identity that is merely “hidden,” then again, there is no bringing two together, but a revealing of what always is but has been hidden from our consciousness, veiled from our knowledge. This is why it is mystical. The ego’s thought of separateness, that subject-object split in the mind, is the very thing that causes the appearance of dualism, of separation, but the essence of consciousness remains undivided. The “Fall-Redemption” spirituality is only problematic if we forget our original divine blessing of humanity’s creation in the Garden. Wilber seems to want to maintain the Fall-Redemption story in his “pre/trans fallacy,” humanity starting off quite fallen, in the pit of total depravity and alienation.

Eckhart Tolle also talks about the “return” to our original divine state, which is like our childhood, and that this is not a “regression” as Wilber puts it.

Marcus Borg, a progressive Christian theologian, also discussed this “fall” into the separateness of ego in our childhood and adolescence:

What happens early in our lives is the birth of self-consciousness. By this, I mean simply self-awareness, that is, awareness of the distinction between self and world. How early this happens we cannot say with precision, but it clearly seems to happen in the preverbal stage of life. A newborn infant is not yet conscious of being a self. With good parenting, infants initially experience the world as an extension of themselves: they get hungry, they get fed; they get wet, they get changed; they cry, they get picked up. But at some point, infants in the process of becoming toddlers become aware that the world is separate from themselves…

The birth and intensification of self-consciousness, of self-awareness, involves a separation from God.

The birth of self-consciousness is the birth of the separated self. When this happens, the natural and inevitable result is self-concern. The two go together: the separated self and the self-centered self.

The birth of self-consciousness, of the separated self, is one of the central meanings of the Garden of Eden story. It is our story. Adam and Eve, living in a paradisiacal state, become conscious of opposites, of good and evil. The result is multifold: they cover themselves, no longer naked and unashamed; they experience life as toil and burden; they are expelled from paradise. The Genesis story ends with them (and us) living their (and our) lives “east of Eden,” estranged and in exile.

The birth of the separated self—what we call “the fall”—is something we go through early in our own lives. We have all experienced this. Moreover, it cannot be avoided; it is utterly necessary. Imagining that Adam and Eve could have avoided it misses the point. We cannot develop into mature human beings without self-consciousness. And yet it is a “fall”—into a world of self-consciousness and self-centeredness, estrangement and exile.

The sense of separation and self-concern is intensified by the process of growing up. Commonly called “socialization,” this process involves internalizing within the self the central “messages” of one’s upbringing. At a foundational level, socialization includes language, whose labels and categories intrinsically divide up the world. It includes a worldview, an understanding of what is real and possible. And, significantly, it includes messages about who we are and what we should be like: parental messages, cultural messages, and for some of us religious messages.

The result: we descend more deeply into the world of self-consciousness and self-concern. Our identity and way of being are more and more shaped by the “world,” meaning the “world” as we internalize it in the process of growing up. The world of the child, with its mystery and magic, is left farther and farther behind.

-Marcus Borg, The Heart of Christianity

Our adult state is not necessarily an improvement on our childhood state, a “higher” state, feeling so proud in all our great knowledge, all our absolute certainty about the world, our graduation from preschool and entrance into the “real world” of postgraduate school, ascending all the way to the Light. No. Rather it seems to me to be a gradual descent into darkness, a heavily veiled state, chained to the cave wall watching the shadows and thinking it is Reality, our virtual realities being shadows within shadows, the very institutionalization of duality and separation in religion and politics, all our knowledge actually being illusory because it is not absolute but unknowingly relative and subjective. We are not rising in this movement to the One, to unity and atonement, but continuing a Fall, the “fall” of the first half of life when our ego develops to its fullness.

We, as “Adam and Eve,” give in to the lie that eating of the tree of knowledge of good and evil would make us like the gods, knowing dualities. But knowing dualities is not godlike, having a dualistic mind is not divine, quite the contrary, it is alienation from the Divine. It is black or white thinking, dualistic thinking, taking sides, thinking we know.

The greatest philosophers seem to realize that what we think we know we actually don’t. In Plato’s Apology, Socrates says:

I am wiser than this man, for neither of us appears to know anything great and good; but he fancies he knows something, although he knows nothing; whereas I, as I do not know anything, so I do not fancy I do. In this trifling particular, then, I appear to be wiser than he, because I do not fancy I know what I do not know.

-Socrates

We think we are so much better than children and their “infantile” ways, so much more intellectual and smart and wise, but I think we are actually quite blind, unconscious, ignorant, lost in what we think is our sophisticated adulting. We are not further along the journey to God than children. No. We’ve actually lost their innocence, their trust, their love, their purity, their energy, their truth, their nakedness in the Divine, not hidden behind any façades of ego or shame or duality. We’ve lost their perception of the One. We’ve lost our consciousness of the One as we once knew it, and the spiritual journey is a letting go, a stripping away, a surrender of all things that we think we know, all our preconceived “knowledge,” until we come into that purity of consciousness again, that emptiness, that nakedness, and know ourselves as the One Self, blameless, innocent, the Lamb of God, pure, Good, our original blessing, our original identity.

Jesus’ disciples also despised little children and their immaturity. Jesus didn’t confirm their thinking, telling them how narcissistic children are, and how alienated they are from God, but rather Jesus flipped that ideology completely on its head:

People were bringing little children to [Jesus] in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.

-Mark 10:13-16

And the disciples likely stared in awe.

Children? They have the “kingdom”? How is it possible Lord? We are confused, we are lost, we are in darkness. Please, help us.

It was not merely that they should receive such children, but Jesus told them they actually had to become like them if they ever hoped to enter that kingdom:

He called a child, whom he put among them, and said, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.”

-Matthew 18:2-5

I’ve yet to see Wilber comment on what he thinks Jesus meant by these words. Perhaps he sees Jesus as an “elevationist.”

Here is what I think Jesus meant. Little children have not yet developed egos, at least not like we have. They are therefore innocent, pure, blameless, true, authentic, genuine, just as they are. They are truly themselves, unaffected by the ways of the world, of cultural or societal systems, and all the conditioning that comes with it. They simply are who they are, spontaneously doing what the life in them leads them to do. And this is often a joyful, energetic, active, spiritual exuberance, a curiosity about the wonderful world, and a loving embrace of all people, no matter who they are. They have not separated themselves into distinct “me” and “other” containers or categories, where the “other” becomes my enemy, something to be feared, something which is a threat to me and my sense of “self,” which will injure me, oppress me, harm me, kill me. They are undivided in their consciousness of the world. Life is a gift, and they embrace their life and the love they see in the world. They are at-one in God, in the Divine, in a mode of nondual thinking. They are as the world has created them, as the One has incarnated itself in them, as the Word has put its flesh on them. Children reflect the Christ nature perhaps more so than anyone else in this world, and unless we become like that, we will not enter in that “kingdom.”

The prophet-mystic founder of my background tradition of Mormonism, Joseph Smith, also seemed to think so:

Every spirit of man was innocent in the beginning; and God having redeemed man from the fall, men became again, in their infant state, innocent before God.

And that wicked one cometh and taketh away light and truth, through disobedience, from the children of men, and because of the tradition of their fathers.

-D&C 93:38-39

And again, one of my favorite verses from the Book of Mormon, which I think sums up the entire spiritual journey beautifully, from the Christian perspective:

For the natural man is an enemy to God, and has been from the fall of Adam, and will be, forever and ever, unless he yields to the enticings of the Holy Spirit, and putteth off the natural man and becometh a saint through the atonement of Christ the Lord, and becometh as a child, submissive, meek, humble, patient, full of love, willing to submit to all things which the Lord seeth fit to inflict upon him, even as a child doth submit to his father.

-Mosiah 3:19, cf. Romans 8:7

Children are not ultimately alienated from the Light of Truth, of God and the Divine, it seems to me.

We are.

As Paul said, we are the one’s who are truly “infantile,” or “childish,” in our thinking, and our great knowledge.

Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming.

-Ephesians 4:14

For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God’s sight.

-1 Cor. 3:19

Brothers, stop thinking like children. In regard to evil be infants, but in your thinking be mature.

-1 Cor. 14:20

Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe.

-1 Cor. 1:20-21

It seems to me that Ken Wilber created an unfortunate fallacy in his “pre/trans fallacy,” one that I hope does not endure. Such “wisdom” does not know God, in my view. It is not a true Love of Sophia which knows children in their innocence and purity, at-one in God.


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2 thoughts on “Ken Wilber’s Fallacious “pre/trans fallacy” and the Condescension of Children

  1. Bryce, why does Wilber goes off on a tangent on the state of children? In my ebook I said “Studies say that infants, and many young children, have a partial universal consciousness until their ego and individuality are fully formed. Do we learn how not to be mystics?”

    I also don’t agree with Wilber’s acceptance of the Christian notion of original sin. As I have written “Most mystics say that each of us is born with the essence of the divine; sin is our separation from the divine, ignoring or not seeking our soul.”

    1. Ron, Wilber tries to show a gradual psychological development from prerational, to rational, to transrational, but that means he puts children at the bottom of the climb to God. I agree with you that in a sense we learn how not to be mystics through the emergence of ego in our childhood/adolescence.

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