Towards an Integral Science of Consciousness

I received this gracious email a few days ago:

Hi Ryan, Here is a quote I read from your bio: “Principally, I am interested in pursuing a more radical materialism for both the sciences and the arts.” Would you say more about what you mean by this? I’ve studied material religion & theology, but I”m not sure if it’s anything like this.

I have to admit that “radical materialism” does sound like goobledy goop. The ideas behind it are too critical to be ill-defined, though, because this is the way science and the wisdom traditions of the world are beginning to merge.


Image credit: Synapse by Gasboyen

Radical Materialism – An Interdisciplinary Approach

So, radical materialism to me is a call towards good science, which means investigating not only what fits our current paradigm (or model of reality) but also the frayed edges of our knowledge, especially the anomalies that call into question our assumptions about how the world works.

Radical materialism relies on traditional methods of data recovery (third-person methods such as brain chemistry) as well as first person methods (personal experiences and phenomenology) and finally the science of relatedness: these are second-person methods that reveal shared observations and experiences (such as extraordinary co-arising cultural events or “group mind”).

Essentially, radical materialism combats the “scientism” of today by giving voice to experience, process, and observable phenomena. The assumption behind this term is that materialism has been infected by a false dualism that prevents access to the conscious events that actually are the doorway to our observations in the first place. In other words, the cognition of experience (also known as consciousness if you really don’t want to get funding) is off-limits from traditional science.

A second assumption here is that the observations we often call “supernatural” will turn out to have material correlates that have to do with our human sensing apparati. But in order to get there, we as a culture are going to have to relax our defenses about what is and isn’t “physically possible.”

Sleep Paralysis Pushes the Envelope Of What’s Real

An example is the subject of sleep paralysis, which is the terrifying sleep experience of feeling like being held down by an oppressive force — sometimes accompanied by a full-blown vision of alien Others. Medical doctors realized in the 1980s that sleep paralysis is a biological condition, governed by muscle paralysis in REM sleep that over-steps its bounds into waking, consensual reality. Until then, the thousands of stories about this condition (not to mention the rich cross-cultural literature) were tossed aside as “quaint fairytales.”

But of course this biological explanation does not reduce the chilling visions to random mechanical farts; rather, the experiences are psychologically real, and may even represent an entryway into shared (or archetypal) spaces. This is what I said about sleep paralysis a year ago:

These meetings have provided countless dreamers with deeper understandings of the psycho-spiritual realms that may be open to them. From my perspective, this isn’t evidence of the “supernatural” but an indication that we still need a more radical materialism to account for what is natural.

Integral Science Becoming Mainstream

I hope this gives some insight into what I mean by radical materialism. I am sharing what I learned from the work of Ken Wilber, B. Allan Wallace, David Hufford, and other philosophers of science who are mapping out the meeting grounds between knowledge and wisdom.

The good news is that this perspective is becoming more mainstream every day. For example, check out this recent Science Daily post about a research team composed of philosophers and cognitive scientists who are investigating consciousness with multiple methods. Professor Paul Coates from the University of Hertfordshire explains:

“When we see a sunset or hear a symphony our sense organs, brains and bodies are moved in ways that are well understood by the physical and biological sciences. But during such experiences we also enjoy distinctive forms of conscious awareness. Yet this undeniable fact about our conscious lives is stubbornly resistant to scientific understanding. How is it even possible for purely physical brain activity to produce conscious experience? How do the qualities that manifest themselves in experience relate to the very different properties that are referred to in scientific descriptions of the physical world?”

Now that’s what I’m talking about! So what do you think about this trend? Can it invigorate our fractured knowledge base? Or do you think an “integral science” is doomed to the sidelines of history?


  1. Tracy says

    Professor Coates: “How do the qualities that manifest themselves in experience relate to the very different properties that are referred to in scientific descriptions of the physical world????

    I tend toward the simple (I hear my friends laughing as I say this), but the answer for me to all this is that consciousness exists beyond the body. Of course science based in matter (“the physical world”) can’t fully understand consciousness or even see it. It can and should point in awe, and let’s hope it does eventually, but it will never understand.

    “The problems created on this level of consciousness cannot be solved from this level of consciousness” I’m forgetting who I’m quoting here… but in other words, a lower level of consciousness (matter) can’t encompass a higher level (spirit).

    I know I just ignorantly stepped in some academic poo here, but it is my way.

    This is all a paradox of course. Consciousness choosing to arise in matter so as to experience itself in material form. Identification with matter sometimes ensues. Science is born eventually and reductionism occurs. Eventually that’s corrected when matter realizes its limits and looks in the mirror to see why it’s limited and sees limitless consciousness looking back at it through material eyes….

  2. Shelby says

    My name is Shelby and I have been researching about lucid dreaming since i think i have been having them. Recently there has been a lot of family issues going on and i think that might be a reason for them but sometimes they worry me. For an example, i will have a friend spend the night and that night i will dream about random things. Like once i dreamed someone told me it was snowing outside. i immediately jumped out of bed and looked out the window and said, “whatever” and went back to bed. i think the fact that i jumped out of bed partially woke me up, but this was only the first time i started acting out on my dreams.
    later on in the year i would dream about my boyfriend as i had a friend spend the night. she tells me the next morning i was patting her head, and another time i put my head on her shoulder. the weird part is, is that i slightly remember but at the same time i dont think i was concious.
    Just last night i had a dream that i was in an intensive care unit at a hospital and i was dreaming (not that i was aware of me dreaming, it was like i was watching myself at this hospital moving around). at the hospital i begam sleep walking, not having control of what i am doing, but at the same time concious. i walked to the other end of the hall towards a teacher i know, with my eyes rolled in the back of my head and stumbling as i tried to write on a piece of paper that i was dreaming and i couldnt wake up.. this is how i normally feel. as if i know what im going, im partially concious but at the same time dreaming and not in control. what worries me is that i actually act on my dreams by moving around, sometimes i wake up on the floor.
    Why is this happening? and what is this called? where can i learn more on it?


    • says

      hi Shelby,
      thanks for commenting. It sounds like you are sometimes acting out your dreams physically — this could be a sleep condition known as REM Behavior disorder. It tends to happen when people are stressed, but it can also have biological roots. I would recommend checking out a sleep doctor in your area and getting accessed. RBD can be dangerous — about 20% of cases end with people hurting themselves or others unintentionally. Here’s an article with more info:

  3. Shelby says

    Thank you. I don’t think its too serious though because i never act out violently but the fact that it has been occuring more frequently interested me. I’ll defintely research some more.

  4. says

    thanks for responding. I don’t think your experiences are a cause for alarm — sorry I gave that impression. there is always a continuum of severity with sleep parasomas, ranging from quirky to irritating to dangerous. Parasomas can also be a great source of self-knowledge if they are not disrupting too much sleep.