Ken's theory of the natural rights of holons

Ken’s theory of rights, discussed in the segment on abortion in the conversation “On the Front Line of the Culture War” is not very convincing. The idea is that, like consciousness (or interiority), rights go all the way down to the simplest particles of matter - molecules, atoms, perhaps even quarks. The theory of natural rights of humans is difficult enough to defend, never mind its extension to non-living matter. A right most basically is a concept, and only humans, as far as we know, are capable of conceptualization. So no non-human species have rights except insofar as they might acquire them through human agreement or legislation. Rights are an emergent property in evolution, not one of the tenets of all holons.

In humans, at the archaic-infrared level, there is no language, so ancient clans could not form the idea of rights, so there were none. No rights at the magic-magenta level either, although something like them might have existed in the form of established ways tribe members could make claims against others who treated them badly in violation of tribal rules. Ethnocentric rights may have emerged at the red-warrior stage, but they came into clear existence at mythic-amber in the codified laws of the first civilizations. Universal human rights had to wait for the European Enlightenment to give birth to them as a culturally significant idea.

The foregoing line of argument has strength because it appeals to historical realities, but I fail to see anything like it that would work to establish the rights of non-human beings.

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I understood Ken’s comments on the rights of holons a little differently. When he gave the example of water, light, and nutrients being the “rights” of plants–that is, conditions that help plants stay whole–I thought of the tenet regarding holons having the capacity for self-preservation (agency). In that regard then, plants do have rights, not because I agree to give them rights, not because of any legislation, but because in the most fundamental sense, plants seek to preserve themselves (e.g. bending towards (or away) from the sun, roots seeking water in the depths, cacti storing water in their cells, etc.). Animals too exhibit self-preservation behavior in many forms, seek to maintain the wholeness of themselves. This is how I understood the rights of holons in the context of that conversation, “rights” being not just or only or simply a concept, but most fundamentally, a capacity for self-preservation.


You wrote: “Animals too exhibit self-preservation behavior in many forms, seek to maintain the wholeness of themselves. This is how I understood the rights of holons in the context of that conversation, “rights” being not just or only or simply a concept, but most fundamentally, a capacity for self-preservation.”

I think you missed my point about ‘rights’ being a concept. Put as a question, it would go like this: how can entities or groups that cannot conceptualize anything and therefore cannot conceive of the idea of rights, be said to possess inherent rights? Does a tree, for example, have roots, bark, branches, leaves, and also rights? The idea seems absurd; a right is not a natural property like roots or leaves. It’s a moral concept which can only be entertained by beings capable of taking a moral point of view, a capacity obviously not possessed by trees. A right is something that can be thought about. We can discuss and debate about rights. Trees can’t do any of those things. Neither can plants, cells, molecules, atoms, and quarks. So none of those holons have rights in any normal sense of the word.

Of course, we can always define a term any way we want to, but the risk of deviating from common definitions is equivocation: the new definition may create an entirely different concept that has no relationship to conventional discussions. If I say ‘rights’ is a set of ideas about how people should behave toward one another and other sentient beings, and you say, ‘rights’ means the behavior of any holon aimed at its self-preservation, we are talking about two different things. Sometimes situations like this can be worked out. Perhaps you might say, “I’m not replacing the standard definition, just trying to stretch it a bit.” Trouble is, your (and Ken’s) notion of the natural rights of holons seems so odd, it looks like a stretch beyond the breaking point. It’s hard to see where the conversation goes from here.

Hi Charles,
Thanks for continuing the conversation. I want to stress that I am not speaking as or for Ken Wilber, which I’m sure you already know, but I needed to say that. I am speaking in alignment with how I understood or interpreted his statements (and I could be totally off the mark in my interpretation and understanding; I’ll allow that). When I heard them, I had a strong intuition of their correctness, and thought of the tenet of capacity for self-preservation ascribed to holons.

You are correct that I am not using the word ‘rights’ in the conventional sense, or as it is normally used. I don’t disagree and do in fact agree with your statement that a right is a moral concept, and that a right is something “that can be thought about.” I did understand your point about ‘rights being a concept.’

That said, I can also view ‘rights’ beyond the conventional, standard definitions, which is what I was doing here, and what I think Wilber was doing. That is indeed stretching the standard definition, towards more truth, I think. Doing so doesn’t limit one’s ability to take the conventional view or participate in or contribute to conventional discussions about rights, that’s still intact, enhanced even, in my opinion.

I do need to clarify statements I made in the first post. Rights as I’m speaking of them here in their non-standard definition are not the behaviors per se aimed at self-preservation, but rather the conditions required for self-preservation, for staying a whole.

And now, before we climb the trees :slightly_smiling_face:, consider people. It seems to me that legislated civil rights for racial minorities, for instance, are related to issues of self-preservation. Are not those rights founded on identified certain conditions that are required for a social group/holon (or individual) to have a capacity for self-preservation that is on a (more) equal footing with say, whites? You may say, “yes, but these are conditions, or needs, for staying whole, not really rights.” Most legislated rights, or morally agreed upon rights, began in the realm of need. Think of police or fire protection or public education, which most people in democratic societies would agree are rights; they are in fact codified in statutes. But these began as needs, as conditions required for people (and society) being able to ‘stay whole,’ have greater capacity for self-preservation. That seems to be the way society works–rights are legislated or morally agreed upon once they are recognized as conditions for preserving the wholeness of an individual or group or society–but the conditions were there before the legislation or the moral agreements, so one could hold the view that rights existed before they were legally sanctioned or instituted by a society. This is what I mean by rights in the most fundamental sense.

So do trees have rights? Are there conditions required by trees for them to ‘stay whole’? Most certainly, and those are their ‘rights’, speaking in this most fundamental sense of rights. Whether or not society has recognized or agreed upon or instituted legal protections of those rights does not, in my mind, detract from the fact trees have rights. I would also add the outlandish (to some) statement that trees also have responsibilities; that is, they have the self-adapting characteristic of holons, communion. Numerous studies show that trees “warn” one another of insect infestations for instance, through chemical and hormonal substance releases, and through an underground meshwork of mycelium that serves as a communication network. So in the most fundamental sense, trees not only have rights, but responsibilities.


I sensed on first listening to Ken’s take on rights and holons, at first interesting but red flagged it because it sounded unusual. Like when something is said that promises to be enlightening but on examination comes up empty or confusing. I already have a solid belief around the idea of rights. Not a usual take either, I might forewarn you. Holons on the other hand is almost a new area of study or contemplation to me that Ken and Corey’s grasp would far exceed mine. The red flag that pops up in everyone’s mind I am sure is just considering that non living material has natural or assigned rights. And its no assumption either they would have to be natural as opposed to assigned. Although I am not sure how even that holds up at the quantum level. Could rights be natural and at the same time not rights? Like anti matter? Too deep but its good to hold on to the idea of natural if I am guessing right about Kens understanding. So Ken makes a lot of sense in his thought about rights as they might apply to existence. Furthermore things can exist without being alive. Ken was definitely clear on that. And it was consistent to imagine the existence as being yes or no - there or not there - with only one condition- a so called right. Its at least possible to imagine that as being the case. All the way up to a complex “human” right of say free speech. You have the right or you don’t. That can work as some type of model. The concept itself is not living. So Kens concept keeps holding up as far as I can see. Without descending into good rights and bad rights (argument) I would take a different approach. And here is that promised “unusual” concept. I believe/think no one has any rights. Simply those are constructs of the ego. Strict interpretations of the concept and laws of karma would possibly back me up on this. For me thats the missing link in why Westerners never quit get a grip of the karma concept. Rights lead to liberties and factions of unimaginable complexity. We can have complexity - but pure awareness can’t divide something so fundamental as a concept for rights without destroying it. Therefore it exists; but not in a way that is divisible. Like yes a right - no, not a right. So I agree with Ken its only use, if you will is to procure existence, but beyond that- you have none. I guess where I disagree is that the right grows or expands. To the extent one exists, and to exist I’m imagining a self, the rights do not expand. Because they don’t exist. When you expand them you expand your self. We do it all the time- thus the many selfs- but not the meaning behind all meaning.
That would be a good place to end. No self is anything real beyond the one true self. Rights as often asserted are appendages of something that is false. So I conclude you just don’t have them. Especially in a possessive way.
As to the thrust of these discussions I would add that its especially grating to the Conservative side to hear Liberals insist health care is a right. Why frame it at all as a right? Discussing a broken system in need of a right, is perhaps the wrong tact. Just ‘fixing it’ would do in my opinion. You can still develop great passion all the way up to indignation. Trying to establish it as a right is laced with pot holes that get bigger every time you drive your conversation over one.
I realize rights came up in the segment about abortion. I would apply the same understanding there as well.

Following LaWanna’s thinking - in my opinion basic formal law has it’s origin in natural law (I use Wikipedia’s content on natural law). And natural law includes not only humans but e.g. animals’ laws. And even trees and landscape have protection already in formal law, not only in natural law. An this protection has been extending with increasing “resolution” and horizon of society’s average cognition and empathy.
I understood Ken’s reasoning as a dialectics that strives to arrive at socially acceptable consesnsus (about this important issue) looking for justification in the natural law domain seen from a holonic perspective.


You wrote:

“So in the most fundamental sense, trees not only have rights, but responsibilities.”

You anticipated my question, “Do trees have responsibilities?” I was prepared to respond that ‘responsibilities,’ like ‘rights,’ is a moral concept and that to apply them to trees (and fungi, and molecules, andcells, and…all the way down) is to impute morality to them, which is anthropomorphic projection. But then I realized that you are using ‘responsibilities’ in a radically different sense than is customary in moral or ethical contexts, just as you do with ‘rights.’ No sense going there again. So, ok, you are not imputing morality to trees or any other non-human holons. Fair enough. As I said, you can define terms any way you want to, but to persuade others, your new definition has to be useful. So what kind of work will ‘the rights and responsibilities of non-human holons’ do for us?

“So what kind of work will ‘the rights and responsibilities of non-human holons’ do for us?”

An enlightening question, Charles, if I understood it correctly, and my most basic answer would be that it gives us the opportunity to move beyond (while including) ego-, ethno-, and even worldcentric views, into kosmocentric views, in which all of reality–not just all of us humans–is given consideration, respect, and care. I think that’s useful.

And thank you for recognizing I was not anthropomorphizing; with two feet of snow on the ground here where I live, I could certainly do a little of that right now on the (personified) Old Man Winter…

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Great point, czarekciecielag, about trees and landscapes having lawful protections, at least in some places.

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Kosmocentric? I second that emotion. Thank you for the interesting conversation.

I’ve often thought when I hear such debate that there is a Perspective issue missing on this Integral site. That of ‘Involution’.

These types of debates could be classified as belonging to the “Grow Up” frame. Developing or Evolving ones Conceptual comprehension Psychologically and Emotionally. And perhaps they could also be placed into the “Show Up” frame, where it is important to Act in accordance with the imperative to align ones personal development with that of the Kosmos.

What seems missing in these kinds of Conceptual debates, particularly the Political, is the “Wake Up” frame.

Growing Up, Waking Up, Cleaning Up & Showing up, taken Holonically, all together, equally, seem to be the Basics of what Ken’s message is about.

What’s missing here to me, is the Awareness that develops once someone has"Woken Up" [or become a “Living Buddha”].

From that Awareness such debates as these become clearly knowable.

Having personal experience of the State of Consciousness known in the Wilberverse as Turiya Tita, (Oneness of The Witness with All Things in the Kosmos), a person comprehends that all Self Organising [Autopoetic], Cognitive or Conscious Systems exist in a complementary and mutual state. Rights? Responsibilities? These are perspectives of the lower orders if cinsciousness, of “Differentiation”. And are irresolvable without the Context of the higher Perspective.

To resolve what one commenter calls the Karmic, others the dialectic, that which contains these opposites holds the key to synthesis.

From the Perspective of The Absolute, from personal, sensory experience of this Order of Existence, a proper Conceptual understanding becomes possible.

Practicing the methods of “Waking Up” is a prerequisite to Access to this Order of Existence and type of Consciousness.

Round & Round you go… where it stops, nobody knows… the wheel of Samsara, the Domain of Karma (Realm of Opposites) is surrounded by the Domain of Dharma (Truth of Existence), which is surrounded by the Domain of Maha (Great Sphere of Existence), which exists in the void. … multiple Perspectives involving in & evolving out. Rights? Responsibilities? Consciousness is about the interplay of both, … isn’t it?

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Thanks for providing something of a “capstone” on this discussion, MJLS. I considered referencing non-dual realization in my last post, but decided to stay with what was necessary and sufficient. But I’m glad you’ve weighed in; the conversation and I feel more complete! I love it when back-and-forth conversations here lead to more and more Wholeness.

Hi LaWanna,
it’s 50 years since I had my first Peak-experience of the full Spectrum of States of Human Consciousness at the age of 4 years. From a pleasant sensory Samadhi all the way through to the dissolving of the separate self and non-dual Oneness with all Things in Existence (Turiya Tita or Nirvana), and on into a State not spoken of by Ken nor mapped in the mystical traditions of East and West. A State of The Witness leaving the sensory domain of Maha and entering the Eternal & Infinate domain of Sunyata or void (‘That’ which Transcends and Includes non-dual Awareness… Ken’s Spectrum omits this State as it’s not in any of traditions teachings or writings. I know this because I spent the best part of those 50 years travelling the planet seeking an explanation for what I experienced from Source masters or teachers of all these traditions. None of them had experienced it directly, though many of them could “Sense” the effects in my consciousness of having been there [& I’ve tried to get through to Ken to personally discuss this omission from his map/ theories but as yet, those in the organisation that surrounds him won’t allow that to happen] )…

Thus,… From the Perspective afforded me by this experience, when I read debates such as the one in this thread certain things are obvious. The primary one in this case is that in order to make sense of or resolve the conflict of perspectives at that Order of Conscious, one needs to view it from the one that envelopes it. Thus the duality or dialect of the issue can be included in that perspective and Transcended. ie, what is Object becomes Subject. What is theoretical Concept, becomes Embodied Cognition. Understanding is turned into Comprehension (the root of that word is to “Grasp with the Fist”). There is a difference between Thinking we Know, and Knowing that we Know. And that had always been Ken’s advice as far as I comprehend it. That the Practices of State Training, lead to direct experience of the kind of Consciousness required to then evaluate these kinds of arguments between “Relative” Truths. As my 4th Way (or Gurdieff/Sufi) teacher used to say to me, “You have to do the work if you want to Know”. Conceptual debates are useful, though Knowing directly is more so.

Once you have experienced with the senses of your body The Truth of the nature of Human existence (The Absolute Truth), it is then possible to put into perspective Relative Truths. Once your consciousness has experienced itself as being one with all Things that exist, both animate and inanimate, the issue of what & whether “Things” have Rights & Responsibilities is a very simple matter.

Thanks for your comment LaWanna. And best wishes to you :v::grin::blossom:

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In what sense does a right exist in the absence of a context within which the right may apply? When we discuss the existence of rights, are we not discussing the potentiality of rights, an opportunity to play around with them before they are concretised in an actual situation.

I have a tree in my garden. Talking about it here, I believe I have the right to get an axe and chop it down. When I go in to my garden with my axe and face the tree, somehow it changes. I believe that the tree has the right to live and I have a responsibility to make a choice as to whether it is right for me to cut it down. The context changed all my thoughts in my kitchen about how to set about my gardening this spring.

That’s why I never became a “real” farmer. I granted especially to the weak plants the right to live, I even took care for them, instead of just throwing them out.

And so we get onto the discussion as to whether the move from hunter gatherer to farmer involved rights and responsibilities. Also, do rights and responsibilities have one line of development alongside cultural development which feeds into the line of development of complexity of holons ? I.e is it a nonsense to talk about the rights of plants to a farmer farming around 4000 BCE yet we can talk about the rights of single cells in today’s GM food debate.

Yes, I do think that when stepping up from hortocultural into (almost industrial) agrculture, where the amount of harvest became important, we stripped the plants of their sacredness and used them as objects, subjected to our will - which didn’t see them any more as living beings. In green this comes back, thankfully, despite sometimes in strange ways.