on January 13, 2010
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, multi-layered, 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 as 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, too verbose, or just too deep, this book offers a great opportunity to get your teeth into the world of the integral philosopher. The vocabulary is 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" 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 in 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 R. 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 to 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 so-called "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 deeply embodied in the here and now, 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 one-dimensional 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, author of "The Mind Reader" and "Discover Your Soul Template".
on January 28, 2011
Even though this book does a great job in explaining consciousness from an Integral perspective, it is even better as a summary of Ken Wilber's and Allan Combs's latest thinking.
Wilber's last major book, Integral Spirituality, was published in 2006. In it he introduced the Wilber-Combs Lattice and the eight zones, which are crucial additions to the Integral model. But unless you are a hardcode Wilber Fan, Integral Spirituality is not easily accessible and quite convoluted. Consciousness Explained Better on the other hand covers the same territory--including the four quadrants, lines and levels of development, states, and types--but does so on 148 easy to read pages. Allan Combs is a professor and has a way of explaining complex matters in clear and simple language, without ever being simplistic. In a tour de force, he draws from a wide range of seminal thinkers, spanning from the Greek Philosophers to modern day researchers from the East and West, and includes art as an element that is neglected by Wilber.
If you are looking for the best introduction to Consciousness AND the latest in Integral thought, Consciousness Explained Better is without an alternative. If asked which book I recommend to get familiar with Ken Wilber's work, Consciousness Explained Better is my first pick.
on October 12, 2009
With at least two other category leading titles under his belt (Synchronicity and Radiance of Being), Professor Combs has done it again. Synchronicity is probably the best book written on the subject. Radiance ranks among the most important and influential books I've read. This work is similar to Radiance in that it covers a broad swatch of material relating to human potential and developmental psychology, and powerfully integrates it into a revealing roadmap as they relate to consciousness. **Highly recommended**
on January 25, 2013
I very much enjoyed this work. I have read several books by Ken wilber & wanted another perspective on his work. & when i saw combs was the same person who helped develop the structures & states lattice i knew i had to get this work, for the sheer brilliancy of it in making so clear the nature of consciousness in its vertical & horizontal aspects, which is in this work & explained in detail as well of course. But first of all i want to say combs is a very good writer & explains complex things clearly. Any way this book hits most of wilbers main concepts such as the AQAL framework, that is explaining a all quadrant, all level view. Then of course as wilber he explains the importance of states, Lines, & types as well. He starts the work by explaining some interesting ideas of whiteheads & James (& others) in relation to consciousness being like a constant flowering, each moment emerging from the last, every one connected.He speaks about the basic developmental stages of children, then of adults. He gives a very good explanation of the developmental lines. The chapter on states & stages is excellent, & gives some very unique insights into the nature of both of them, & works in some interesting ideas from chaos theory, also his explanation of the different ways to bring about & prolong states such as 'loading stabilization', 'negative feedback stabilization', & so forth were very interesting & use full. Of course he goes into the higher states & stages, the spiritual aspects that consciousness can reach in its higher peaks, using mostly Sri Aurobindos & Wilbers names & explanations for these things. One more quick thing the chapter on the state-stage lattice was amazing, & if you have not come across this concept before it will clear up a great deal of confusion in how states & stages relate to one another, & work off each other, in this profound vertical & horizontal process of unfolding spirit within man. So in all this was a very good book & enjoyed it a greatly. One person wrote in the reviews calling this book "Christian Drivel" which i am happy to say is completely false, i looked hard there was no focus on Christianity at all, in fact i think there was only one brief mention of anything remotely christian, & he was only using it as a example, no religion is pointed at to be special in this work, as fare as i can see he respects all the important insights of every religion. A factor of this book which is neutral is its size, its not a very long book, but it is packed with valuable insights, it is only that in some places i feel a few more paragraphs would have been nice, which is the price you pay for fitting such complex concepts into a small amount of pages, which he still pulls off & gives justice to the concepts he touches on, but a few more words here & there would have been justified. The only complaint i have with this book is the price, as i said it is a pretty small book & is the cost of books a bit larger, tho the book itself & its paper is a very high quality & seems like it will keep in good condition for a very long time, still seems like it should have been just a few dollars cheaper in my opinion, tho with such amazing information seems rather petty to dwell on one or two $s. Also this is meant to be in many ways a introduction to wilbers work so if your someone who has read several of Wilbers works already it is not essential that you read this work, but of course he does add many of his own concepts & his own style which makes it not only a companion to wilbers works but also a work that stands as a great achievement to the author himself in his unique style. So if you have read Wilber already expect to see some new insights & interpretations on many of his main themes, but most of it will be familiar to you. If you are new to the AQAL integral framework this is a very good place to start, & it will greatly open your mind to a highly balanced, intelligent, holistic, & well integral way of looking at psychology, spirituality, philosophy, and much more.
on November 5, 2015
In his latest book entitled Consciousness Explained Better, Professor Allan Combs has done a masterful job of presenting the kaleidoscope of far flung divergent viewpoints and conceptualizations on what the true nature of consciousness might be and whether the generally accepted notions of consciousness are even valid. Moreover, he explains and presents evidence for why grasping the significance of this iceberg-type issue is relevant to our lives as well as explaining the importance of heeding the calls of scholars who also consider the issue of Consciousness to be of primary importance; thus broadening the audience for who can enter the discussion of these ideas.
For instance, in the Foreword, renowned theorist and developmental psychologist Dr. Jenny Wade, author of Changes of Mind: A Holonomic Theory of the Evolution of Consciousness, puts forth this explanation of why we should care about Consciousness: “The ‘problem’ of consciousness—and its attendant ‘problem,’ the nature of reality, or what we are conscious of and perhaps what makes us conscious—marks the frontier of human exploration....Empiricism...may be inadequate to penetrate the mystery. Centuries of idealist philosophy and contemplative practice have produced interesting results but are limited by their own paradigms. Indeed, it is hard even to know how to define the problem, and therefore to determine what would constitute a satisfactory ‘solution.’
Either way, the urge to understand involves improving the quality of life for the greater good. But what makes solving the problem of consciousness so compelling is essentially personal: it would bring meaning for each one of us. It would answer those gnawing existential questions about who we are, how the world works, and what is ‘real.’ It would therefore tell us how to live and make sense of our lives....This subjectivity and centrality to the meaning of life is why we persevere in the quest for consciousness” [page XIII].
In this book Professor Combs builds upon the concepts presented in his best selling work Radiance of Being: Understanding the Grand Integral Vision; Living the Integral Life including elaborating on Ken Wilber’s work—AQAL model—and how the Wilber-Combs lattice intersects with Wilber’s Four Quadrant model. The author provides readers with excellent charts which visually elucidate the four realms of experience and the six developmental stages [pages 100-101]. Additionally, the book offers readers a detailed explanation and exploration of the Eight Perspectives for horizontally moving through experience. Professor Combs gives readers a full tour of the history and thinking behind the Quadrants and the Zones as he regales readers with his skillful and crafty story telling abilities:
“Imagine, for instance, that you are enjoying a dinner with friends. The white wine and red snapper are excellent, and you find yourself basking in the warmth of your friends’ company. The taste of the wine and the fish, as well as the feelings of friendship are all realities of your Zone 1 perspective. If, however, you pause to consider your pleasure, you are shifting to Zone 2, also a subjective state but with an objective detachment from the flow of ‘raw’ experience that is the reality of Zone 1. Notice also the almost palpable sense of shared feelings among good friends that cannot be reduced to a collection of individual experiences in each person’s Zone 1. This shared sense of friendship is a Zone 3 experience: the sense of being together and what this feels like as a group....
Touring through these zones we can, for example, see each of our friends simply as physical bodies. This is a Zone 6 perspective. It is the basis of historical behaviorism....Yet another point of view might find us looking at our group as a single set of interacting individuals who make up a small society. This way we see them as an interacting system that might be mapped in terms of the exchange of communication between its members. In this way we would be taking a Zone 8 perspective....If we probe the internal dynamics of this system, however, we would be moving into a Zone 7 perspective....This Zone 7 perspective is the inside of the objective organization or system which is the group of dinner companions viewed in an objective or LR quadrant way” [pages 119-122].
Besides the obvious examples from life, Professor Combs weaves a remarkable path through the consciousness terrain using art and the history of art as both metaphor and analogy. His reach spans from the Realism seen in Manet’s Olympia [Zone 6 view] to Cezanne’s Mont Sainte-Victoire [Zone 1]. Professor Combs conjectures that these artists viewpoints as well as the viewers perception of the experience of the artwork all arise out of their respective individual developmental levels. Flipping from page to page allows you to do your own comparisons and make your own assessment of the author's statements. This is a key strength demonstrated by Professor Combs throughout this book.
Professor Combs provides readers with interesting perspectives on what the definitions might be for “Integral Consciousness” and “Enlightenment,” indicating that neither term can be easily defined. Surprisingly, he explains to the reader that conceptually, “Enlightenment” may be far from what an ordinary individual thinks of as being true: “Briefly, the word enlightenment became a regular part of spiritual conversation in the U.S. and Europe during the 1960s and 1970s....The problem, however, is that the word ‘enlightenment’ does not have a single meaning. For example, some people think of it as a state of consciousness that contains all knowledge, or believe that it offers complete freedom from worry or pain. Others view it as a high spiritual condition in which one ascends to the divine.
Turning to Eastern sacred texts for a clear definition of enlightenment is not very helpful. To begin with, ‘enlightenment’ is an English word with no unequivocal counterpart in Eastern languages....As Wilber himself points out, the most shocking thing about this definition is that it changes over time. In other words, as human consciousness evolves, so does enlightenment!...Thus, we might think someone living, for example, in a nondual state is ‘enlightened,’ though that person may possess only modest cognitive or moral maturity. I invite the reader to consider this possibility when reflecting on the careers of some the ‘enlightened masters’ who have visited the U.S. and Europe during the past 40 years or so” [pages 144-146].
A most delightful aspect of this book is that it can be read at multiple levels. In this sense, it is appropriate for the casual reader, the reader with an intermediate level interest in Consciousness, and it has plenty of “goodies” for the advanced or serious student of Consciousness. For instance, for the casual reader, Professor Combs covers easy to understand concepts such as chaotic attractors, cognitive dissonance, complexity, Earth Mother, ego, lucid dreaming, magic, states of consciousness, and surrealism. To sustain the intermediate reader, Professor Combs touches on the work of Thomas Aquinas, Niels Bohr, Tzu-Chuang, and Salvador Dali as well as concepts such as the collective unconscious, cybernetic machines, disruptive influences, the mental structure of consciousness, satchitananda, schematas, and temporicity.
Likewise, Professor Combs provides the advanced reader with a plethora of choices to conceptually sample Consciousness from Philosophy of Mind and Philosophy of Science theoretical perspectives including discussions of Deconstructionism/Post-Modernism, Objective/Subjective, and Realist/Non-Realist projections as well as Cybernetic Epistemology, Epistemological Realism, Metaphysical Realism and Ontological Realism. He also briefly touches on thorny topics such as hieroglyphic thought, near death experiences, perennial philosophy, spiral dynamics, and string theory. Reading and re-reading Consciousness Explained Better has provided hefty levels of enjoyment since I have now read the book through a total of three times! I delight each time I read the book since I always encounter what many others find out when they re-read a favorite book: “Oh, why didn’t I see that before?” or “Gee whiz, I wonder how he made that connection? Maybe I can do the same thing!” or "I wonder what other key ideas I may have missed or misinterpreted?"
Alternately, Professor Combs presents ideas which can cause us cognitive dissonance: his penetrating questions ask the reader to dig down deep to clarify what he or she actually believes or “knows” as Reality but is that indeed the case upon reflection. That is the $64,000 question brought up by the concepts presented. How do we know what we know and how can we be sure that we know our perception is correct? On what basis do we know or trust that what we perceive is correct or “factual?” If you read this book in a “light” fashion, then most likely these questions will not detain you but if you are the reflective type—one who is on a quest for meaning—then perhaps you’ll hit a few mental and emotional [or perhaps spiritual] “speed bumps” while reading Consciousness Explained Better.
So, who should consider reading this book? Well, first off, anyone who is curious about what Consciousness might be or “wonders” what all the hub-bub is considering the vitriol between the various camps who hold diametrically opposed theoretical [and perhaps not so theoretical] positions about what the nature of consciousness might be or whether it is a misnomer or just a passing “figment” of our imaginations. Secondly, this book is a must read for any serious student of Consciousness. Why? In my view, when you build upon the framework Professor Combs has done so magnificently in his Radiance of Being work combined with the elaborations presented in this book, then I believe his work rises to the illuminating level of Joseph Campbell’s seminal treatise The Hero with a Thousand Faces. In this work Professor Combs lights an intelligent middle path for the casual or serious reader to explore the dialogue—past and present—now taking place about Consciousness. Adding this book to your reading list would simultaneously be a wise investment and a good use of your time. One thing is for sure: you’ll never be the same after reading this book IF you really read it! Highest recommendation for a job well done! 5+ STARS!
Robert “Bob” Wright, Jr., Ph.D., COFT
on August 11, 2013
Supposing you wanted to read a book that dealt with the Big questions of evolution, consciousness, and such. And you wanted it to be scholarly, and that it should traverse a range of disciplines, from psychology to neuroscience (with a nice dose of art history thrown in). And wouldn't it be nice if it were not a long book, and if the style was readable, conversational, and had an appropriate amount of humor.
It sounds like a tall order, but this is just what Consciousness Explained Better manages to do. For a book with such solid scholarship as its basis, it is an extraordinarily accessible read. Although the title is an obvious dig at Daniel Dennett's book of a couple of decades ago, Consciousness Explained Better isn't an argumentative response. It is just consciousness explained... better.
If you're reading the reviews, you should get the book. You may not agree with everything Comb's says, and you may not like it as much as I did. But you will enjoy the read, and will even have fun disagreeing with it. I feel it is an appropriate introduction to the topics of consciousness and integral theory, and would probably be my new go-to book as an introduction. On the other hand, I'm not at all new to these topics and I thoroughly enjoyed it, had a lot to think about, learned new things, and felt greater clarity after reading the book.
on May 6, 2013
I would recommend this book as a good explanation for perceiving reality based on the different filters based on ages from birth toward Adulthood, based on education, and the time in history, and culture one finds themselves. This does not cover "Consciousness." Consciousness is the seat of existence by which we are aware of our existence and the reality we find ourselves; this book, while very interesting and informative, covers the ways we interpet "Whats out there."
Another great book that covers this subject from a nuerological approach: "Who's in Charge" by Michael Gazzanica.
on July 30, 2011
I bought this book in the belief that it contained an interesting, new angle on the mind-body problem. And yes, I know that Allan Combs is a friend of Ken Wilber, the "pandit" of Integral Theory. The book does have a promising start, quoting and discussing William James, attempting to explain (or explain away) the problem of consciousness from some kind of phenomenological stance. Nothing wrong with that, per se.
And then there's the rest of the book...
Allan Combs turns out to be an old hippie with almost stereotyped Love Summer/New Age values, and a truly comic chela complex towards Ken Wilber. Every time the author quotes Wilber, he is at great pains pointing out that it's "quoted by permission from Ken Wilber". Since Combs and Wilbie seem to be litter buddies, I really don't get it.
Combs' main message is simple: you aren't spiritually developed unless you love Picasso, Manet's nudes, modern art in general, postmodern urban subcultures, and (I presume) hippies. To take morals seriously is another sure sign of arrested development. Interestingly, Combs repeats Wilber's remarkable admission that a truly "enlightened" person might be a social or moral wreck. But if so, "enlightenment" simply means that you have a certain ability to space out. It's unclear why anyone would want to spend 20+ years meditating like crazy for *that*, unless it also leads to some rather heavy social and moral transformations. If these people cannot even save themselves, why on earth should we follow them?
Still, as a product of Non-Dual Mindlessness, I suppose "Consciousness explained better" does have a certain entertainment value.
on January 20, 2011
Hmm... Ok again we have a book that "suggests" (by its title) it makes a serious dent in the mind body problem.
In my view, this book went no where near the mind/body problem and so I personally am very dissappointed.
It is yet another work from the narrow persective of psychology. Its greatest weakness is that it is not multidisciplinary in its approach and so has no where interesting to go after it exhausts developmental psych. I enjoyed it up until chapter 7, after which it seemed to dive completely into abstraction, abandoning what felt like a lengthening chain of logic.
I tried very hard but could not find anything appealing about 'integral consciousness.' It just gave me the feeling that I was surveying undeveloped lots in the Arizona desert. An entire framework, outlining the next few centuries of consciousness studies. Sure the message in art evolves with our expanding central nervous system, but I cannot see how we get from that to our promised explanation of consciousness.
I loved the survey of Piaget's developmental psych and the subsequent 'evolution of consciousness' sections, particularly the latter.
on March 23, 2016
It doesn't explain consciousness at all.
And it does BETTER than most because of so many references and ridiculous tables.
Page after page of gibberish and fawning over Ken Wilbur.
Let's face it: No one has done explained consciousness better than WilliamJames.