Disambiguation-of-Life Protocol


Perspectives of Awareness

Upper Left

Inner Only



Upper Right

Outer Only



Lower Left

Inner and Outer as Same
No Inner/Outer Separation



Lower Right

Outer as if Inner
Sees Others as if Self



Most people find the four quadrants a little difficult to grasp at first, then very simple to use. The quadrants refer to the fact that anything can be looked at from four perspectives, so to speak: we can look at something from the inside or from the outside, and in the singular or the plural. For example, my own consciousness in this moment...

The Upper-Left quadrant [ "I" ] (the interior of the individual): I can look at it from the inside, in which case I see all my various feelings, hopes, fears, sensations, and perceptions that I might have in any given moment. This is the first-person or phenomenal view, described in "I" language. But consciousness can also be looked at in an objective, "scientific" fashion, in which case I might conclude that my consciousness is the product of objective brain mechanisms and neurophysiological systems. This is the third-person or objective view, described in "it" language. Those are the inside and the outside views of my own consciousness.

But my consciousness or self does not exist in a vacuum; it exists in a community of other selves. So in addition to a singular view of consciousness, we can look at how consciousness exists in the plural (as part of a group, a community, a collective). And just as we can look at the inside and the outside of the individual, we can look at the inside and the outside of the collective. We can try to understand any group of people from the inside, in a sympathetic resonance of mutual understanding; or we can try to look at them from the outside, in a detached and objective manner (both views can be useful, as long as we honor each).

On the inside of the collective, we see all of the various shared worldviews (archaic, magic, mythic, rational, etc.), ethics, customs, values, and intersubjective structures held in common by those in the collective (whether that be family, peers, corporation, organization, tribe, town, nation, globe). The insides of the collective are described in "we" language and include all of those intersubjective items that you might experience if you were truly a member of that culture. From the outside, we see all of the objective structures and social institutions of the collective, such as the physical buildings, the infrastructures, the techno-economic base (foraging, horticultural, agrarian, industrial, informational), the quantitative aspects of the society (the birth and death rates, the monetary exchanges, the objective data), modes of communication (written words, telegraph, telephone, internet), and so on. Those are all "its" or patterns of interobjective social systems.

So we have four major perspectives (the inside and the outside of the singular and the plural): I, it, we, and its. Since the objective dimensions (the outside of the individual and the outside of the collective) are both described in third-person it-language, we can reduce the four quadrants to just three: I, we, and it. Or first-person, second-person, and third-person accounts. Or art, morals, and science. Or the beautiful, the good, and the true.

The major point is that each of the levels, lines, and states of consciousness has these four quadrants (or simply the three major dimensions of I, we, and it). This model therefore explicitly integrates first-, second-, and third-person accounts of consciousness at each of the levels, lines, and states. This gives what I believe is a more comprehensive and integral model of consciousness. This "all-quadrants, all-levels, all-lines, all-states" model is sometimes referred to simply as "all-quadrant, all-level," or AQAL for short. I have explored this model at length in several books, such as Sex, Ecology, Spirituality ;A Brief History of Everything ; and Integral Psychology . If we systematically investigate the implications of this AQAL model, we might also find that it opens up the possibility of a more integral approach to education, politics, business, art, feminism, ecology, and so on.

It should be emphasized that this article has dealt almost exclusively with only one quadrant, namely, the interior of the individual (which is called the "Upper-Left quadrant"). But in other works I have dealt extensively with the other quadrants, and my point is certainly that all of the quadrants need to be included in any balanced account of consciousness. We will return to the quadrants below, and suggest how an AQAL formulation can contribute to a solution to the "hard problem."

To see why the four quadrants are important for understanding even individual psychology, we can return to our "religious grid" as an example. We earlier discussed only the Upper-Left quadrant factors (the interior of the individual), which is fine for the phenomenology of spiritual experiences. But for an integral account, we need also to include the other quadrants.

The Upper-Right quadrant [ "IT" ] (the exterior of the individual): During any spiritual, religious, or nonordinary state of consciousness, what are the neurophysiological and brain-state correlates? These might be investigated by PET scans, EEG patterns, physiological markers, and so on. Conversely, what are the effects of various types of physiological and pharmacological agents on consciousness? An enormous amount of this type of research has already been done, of course, and it continues at an increasing pace. Consciousness is clearly linked in complex ways to objective biological and neurophysiological systems, and continued research on these correlations is surely an important agenda. This type of consciousness research--anchored in the brain side of the brain-mind connection--is now one of the most prevalent in conventional consciousness studies, and I wholeheartedly support it as providing some crucial pieces of the overall puzzle.

Nobody, however, has successfully demonstrated that consciousness can be reduced without remainder to those objective systems; and it is patently obvious that phenomenologically it cannot. Unfortunately, the tendency of the third-person approaches to consciousness is to try to make the Upper-Right quadrant the only quadrant worth considering and thus reduce all consciousness to objective "its" in the individual body/brain--but those cover only one-fourth of the story, so to speak.

Still, this is an incredibly important part of the story. This quadrant, in fact, is the home of the increasingly dominant schools of psychology and consciousness studies that I mentioned in the introduction (e.g., cognitive science, evolutionary psychology, systems theory applied to brain states, neuroscience, biological psychiatry, etc.). This quadrant provides the "brain" side of the equation that needs to be correlated with the "mind" side (represented by, for example, the master template or full-spectrum cartography of waves, streams, and states). And my further point is that those are just two of the quadrants that need to be brought to the integral table.

The Lower-Left quadrant [ "WE" ] (the interior of the collective): How do different intersubjective, ethical, linguistic, and cultural contexts mold consciousness and altered states? The postmodernists and constructivists have demonstrated, correctly I believe, the crucial role played by background cultural and intersubjective contexts in fashioning individual consciousness (Wilber, 1995, 1998). But many postmodernists have pushed this insight to absurd extremes, maintaining the self-contradictory stance that cultural contexts create all states. Instead of trying to reduce consciousness to "it"-language, they try to reduce all consciousness to "we"-language. All realities, including those of objective science, are said to be merely cultural constructions. To the contrary, research clearly indicates that there are numerous quasi-universal aspects to many human realities, including many altered states (e.g., all healthy humans show similar brainwave patterns in REM sleep and in deep dreamless sleep). Nonetheless, these patterns are indeed given some of their contents and are significantly molded by the cultural context, which therefore forms an important part of a more integral analysis.

Lower-Right quadrant [ "ITS" ] (the exterior of the collective): How do various techno-economic modes, institutions, economic circumstances, ecological networks, and social systems affect consciousness and altered states? The profoundly important influence of objective social systems on consciousness has been investigated by a wide variety of approaches, including ecology, geopolitics, ecofeminism, neoMarxism, dynamical systems theory, and chaos and complexity theories. All of them tend to see the world ultimately as a holistic system of interwoven "its." This, too, is an important part of an integral model. Unfortunately, many of these theorists (just like specialists in the other quadrants) have attempted to reduce consciousness to just this quadrant--to reduce consciousness to digital bits in a systems network, a strand in the objective Web of Life, or a holistic pattern of flatland its, thus perfectly gutting the I and the we dimensions. Surely a more integral approach would include all of the quadrants--I, we, it, and its--without trying to reduce any of them merely to the others.

Of course, the foregoing analysis applies not only to states but also to levels, lines, and self: all of them need to be situated in the four quadrants (intentional, behavioral, cultural, and social) for a more integral understanding, resulting in an "all-quadrants, all-levels, all-lines, all-states" panoptic.

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Updated: 24 Feb 2017

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