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Book Review of

Allan Combs Consciousness Explained Better


Title: Consciousness Explained Better: Towards an Integral Understanding of the Multifaceted Nature of Consciousness Author: Allan Combs Publisher: Omega Books (September 15, 2009) Paperback: 170 pages ISBN-10: 1557788839 ISBN-13: 978-1557788832 Consciousness is not a simple thing to understand, but in "Consciousness Explained Better", Allan Combs has done a fine job of simplifying the integral view of mind. The integral view posits that consciousness is multi-faceted, multilayered, cannot be easily reduced and explained, and changes according to the perspective of the perceiver. Largely following the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber, Allan Combs does not argue that consciousness is relativistic and culturally defined, however. There are universal states and streams in the evolution of consciousness. The title "Consciousness Explained Better" is a reference to Daniel Dennett's 1992 book, "Consciousness Explained", which took a more mainstream scientific view of consciousness. Readers looking for a critique of Dennett will be disappointed. Combs makes just one short reference to Dennett in the introduction, describing Dennett's book as "over 500 pages of tortuous symbolic reasoning" (p. xvii). Combs prefers to approach the subject with "quite a different spirit", more in the style of William James and Mark Baldwin, attempting to "recapture afresh the mystery, excitement, and wealth of its study..." (pp.xvii-xviii). The second purpose of "Consciousness Explained Better" is to serve an introduction to the thinking of

Ken Wilber, whom Comb's describes as a personal friend. Combs' angle is unashamedly mystical, in that mind is not merely viewed as epiphenomena, emerging from the material stuff of brains. Rather it is an integral part of cosmos itself. Like Wilber, Combs' develops a map of approaches to consciousness, following Wilber's Four Quadrant model, comprising the empirical, social, cultural and subjective aspects of mind (although more complex than these terms can convey here). The great strength of this book is its simplicity. It takes the sometimes complex and long-winded arguments of Wilber and the integralists, and condenses them into a concise 150-page volume. For those who have found Wilber too wordy, to verbose, and just too deep, this book offers a great opportunity to get your teeth into the world of the integral philosopher. The vocabulary if easy on the brain, too! Thankfully, it is also free of the long lists of names that tend to dominate Wilber's books. "Consciousness Explained Better" also features nice potted summaries of important thinkers such as Sri Auribindo, James Marc Baldwin, Teilhard de Chardin, Henri Bergson, Jean Gebser, and more. In particular, students of consciousness studies (formally, or informally) will find this an invaluable introduction to the integral view. For those accustomed to mainstream reductionist views of consciousness, it may well broaden the mind. An important clarification that Comb's (following Wilber) makes is distinguishing amongst lines, streams, stages and structures of mental development. This is something that many books on spiritual intelligence and spiritually-inclined models of consciousness often fail to make. For example, David E. Hawkins books such as "Power Vs Force", suggest that consciousness development is a linear progression from the rational to the trans-rational. Lines of development are the specific skills and areas of knowledge that we acquire as we develop into adulthood (p.35). These lines include the cognitive, interpersonal, emotional, aesthetic, moral, psychosexual and so on. States of consciousness, (which Combs does not define), are described as a consistent overall experience, and include dreaming, meditative, and normal waking states. Combs makes the analogy of attractor fields in physics, suggesting mental states have a self-organising function.

The term "structures" of consciousness refers to the way in which the mind "takes hold of experiences and makes them its own" (p. 58). Structures are the way the mind interprets its experience. Piaget's four categories are examples - formal operational, concrete operational, preoperational, and sensory-motor. Interestingly these structures mirror certain worldviews, such as Jean Gebser's Mental, Mythic, Magic and Archaic (p. 61). Where Combs expands beyond Piaget and much of mainstream cognitive science, is in the way he goes on to discuss the integral or postconventional structures of consciousness. Here Combs draws upon the ideas of Mark Baldwin, Indian yogi Sri Auribindo, and of course Wilber himself. Wisdom and spirituality come into play to make the distinction with cognitive skills and human intelligence (p.80). Combs (and Wilber) find that there are several levels to the integral, including the illumined mind (psychic), the intuitive mind, the causal, and the nondual (supermind) levels. The intelligence/consciousness distinction is particularly interesting. I've argued that there is a kind of intelligence inherent in transpersonal stages (Anthony, "Integrated Intelligence"). It all depends upon how we define intelligence. If we say that intelligence is the ability to successfully solve problems and apply the understanding to specific situations, then the integral does constitute a higher intelligence, for it assists us in seeing the big picture, and contextualising the socalled "lower" stages of cognitive development. Of course, the intuitive prompts of the "psychic" realm can also be used to make "intelligent" decisions. A key in moving into the transpersonal realms, writes Combs, is in "acquiring flexible perspectives that are open to many facets of experience" (p. 89). My personal experience is that it also requires an openness to other ways of knowing and non-ordinary states of consciousness. Trying to be "clever" actually impedes the development of the integral, because the individual will tend to develop an ego attachment to "rationality", and the journey is unconsciously thwarted by the ego. There are certain criticisms that can be made of "Consciousness Explained Better." You won't find too much on the mechanics of consciousness here. This is not a book of science, but a book of philosophy. As with Wilber, Combs doesn't say much about the science of consciousness from the right-hand quadrants, the material

and empirical. This will no doubt frustrate enthusiasts of the subject with a more mainstream science background. Another point is that Combs follows Wilber in predicating the essential stages of cognitive development on the ideas of Swiss researcher Jean Piaget. Piaget made a crucial contribution to our understanding of developmental psychology, but there have been many critiques of his work, and some researchers have questioned the entire basis of the idea of developmental stages (see Wilber's "Sex, Ecology, Spirituality" and Sternberg, Lautry, & Lubart's "Models of Intelligence". As with Wilber, "Consciousness Explained Better" does get a little confusing with the numerous terms to describe different aspects of mind. We have stages, lines, levels, and structures; then horizontal and vertical evolution of mind; and the four quadrants. Even though I've read quite a few of Wilber's books, I still find myself at times being unclear on the distinctions. Further, for the uninitiated the book may confuse; because for the sake of brevity, Combs gets right into his view of things. It's straight into the deep end, albeit with water wings firmly attached. This book will be criticised for the same reasons that Wilber is critiqued. It is not so much interested in bringing forth data, as in situating data, ideas and thinkers into pre-existing categories. However, I might point out that this is what mainstream science and psychology inevitably does as well - just less explicitly. What Comb's does is make the categories, and the worldviews, clear. A minor point is that Allan Combs states that an idealised enlightenment may stifle the urge towards further change. Yet there is evidence that in these higher stages, there is cessation of desire. And as mystic Leonard Jacobson says in "Journey into Now", one cannot seek the peak experiences which open the doorway into higher consciousness. They occur independently of the will of ego. This leads me to a final "criticism" - or perhaps I should call it a limitation. Any book which tries to explain transpersonal levels of mind is unavoidably employing a "rational" medium (the written word) to comprehend and explain a trans-rational realm. The very process may be inadequate to understand the problem deeply. Perhaps all this intense intellectualisation of the higher stages of consciousness actually retards its development, because it ensnares the thinker within the "rational' mind. An important distinction is that between books ABOUT

consciousness by academics and philosophers, and those BY genuine mystics who live these higher states. Leonard Jacobson writes that only when the mind is fully present can these higher stages emerge - only when the mind is fully present, when there is no "thinking". Only silence. Where does that leave the philosophers of mind? Finally, I agree with Combs that the future of the human species may be dependent upon the development of a more refined and advanced consciousness. Just getting smarter - in the sense of being more rationally intelligent - may not move us beyond the limitations of consciousness as currently experienced by most people on the planet today. As Einstein once famously stated, the solutions to our greatest problems are never made at the level of consciousness at which they were created. These criticisms and reflections are in no way suggestive that "Consciousness Explained Better" is not a valuable read. This concise book lives up to its name, albeit somewhat ironically. It's not too hard to expand upon Daniel Dennett's onedimensional view of mind, another entirely to better Wilber's own work. I highly recommend the book, and commend Allan Combs for making these ideas more publically accessible. Marcus T. Anthony