Papus79 wrote:What the particular flavor and shape of these experiences has done to my belief about consciousness is its made me increasingly something of a radical functionalist, ie. considering the possibility that sentience could be part and parcel with dynamic systems and possibly even dynamism itself. That's sort of in line with the James/Russell neutral monism outlook, in some ways it might jive with Christof Koch's outlook although I don't think he'd be particularly comfortable with talking about much past neurons.
Either way though I do think it tends to at least suggest that even if purpose isn't fundamental the insinuations or precursors of purpose are in nature deeper than our own individual attempts to find it. The more obvious examples even available to physicalists would be that as animals we're part of an ecosystem and everything finds its area of specialization where the whole thing works toward dynamic equilibrium; honey bees and bats are clear examples of something having a purpose. Similar things could be said of the cold-water conveyor belt on the ocean floors around the world and, back to the level of human life, we're in a human-to-human machinery called society where personality types, talents, preferences, etc.. work some type of balancing act and our place in that balance is also a supervening purpose. What radical functionalism or 'dynamic systems as a category might be conscious' speaks to I think is the possibility that the stacking of experiential fidelity that we find in evolution might be a tendency that's perhaps even exploited chance rather than being purely arbitrated by it. To that end we may very well go into the future and in the next ten or twenty thousand years we might even add new structures that rest on top of the frontal lobe that do even higher levels of work, come with even more pristine self-conscious awareness, and so on.
There was a wonderfully dysfunctional interaction in a panel discussion that included Christof Koch and a philosopher whose name escapes me. Koch expressed the view that mind and matter were different domains and the philosopher pounced (having locked horns with Koch earlier and keen to kit back) - "You're a dualist!" he cried triumphantly. At that point I learned that "dualist" might be an accusation that scares philosophers hoping not to be thought of as superstitious, but doesn't do much when applied to to a brain scientist who thinks that the whole monism/dualism concept is trivial philosopher noodling :)
It seems to me that when it comes to humans in nature, we tend to see ourselves as actors rather than acted upon because we judge ourselves to be the highest level of the Earthly systems. As a result, there's a common notion that humans are like an alien parasite or a cancer destroying the Earth. I see humanity rather as a functionary and facilitator of metamorphosis of the biosphere as part of the Earth's trend towards dynamic equilibrium. Ironically (absurdly?) the way we animals trend towards equilibrium is with a ceaseless drive to grow and reproduce. We are like many little bangs popping on the tail end of the big one.
Initially biology may have started on Earth as a means of breaking down the buildup of free ions on organic molecules on the surface as the result of geologic activity. If we were rocks at the dawn of life (and capable of caring lol), we might have felt that this new-fangled life thing was a terrible disaster - destroying the Earth's longstanding non living material by "infecting it", turning it into itself. The "infection" of life, of course, is now so widespread that most of the Earth's surface, once sterile with pristine nonliving material, is now covered with messy, acquisitive life. Still, most of the Earth remains geological. So we have a thin layer of life exploiting a bulk of geology.
Two billion years later, the "victorious" microbes ran into trouble with new multicellular "monsters", gobbling up millions of the smaller critters with a single gulp. Increasingly multicellular organisms took over, but most life is still microbial. Now there's a layer of animals, plants and fungi exploiting a bulk of microbes.
The process repeated again with humans. Intelligent life (allegedly us) is destroying simpler life and turning the energy gained from those lives into babies, ie. ever more intelligent life. A now layer of humanity exploiting a bulk of simpler life.
Now institutions - collectives governed by automated rules and logic (effectively a rudimentary form of AI) - are consuming the resources generated by individual humans and taking control of them. A layer of institutions exploiting a bulk of humans.
Institutions are, as we all know, a massive PITA on a personal level but they can do some interesting things that individuals can't do from a planetary point of view. For instance, they will eventually be capable of protecting the planet from asteroids and have no doubt already spread some of the Earth's life to other worlds, and much more will follow.
So why would we humans be compelled to supersede ourselves - to join together in crowded groups that drive us somewhat crazy - fiercely competing, harassing, pressuring, exploiting and coercing each other. We form groups that grow and grow until they become self interested (and selfish) entities in their own right. Why should we do it? Why don't we give cities and the institutions the finger and lead a peaceful tribal life out in nature? We did do that, of course, and the city people came in and took over.
This whole maddening human edifice seems to flow directly from our early microbial ancestors' survival and growth instincts, flowing all the way through to our institutions and their increasing interesting in bringing space into the commercial sphere. Many judge humanity for its sins against nature, but I don't see how there was ever any real choice for such a dominant, newly-intelligent species. It's not as though we have experience in being a lone abstractly intelligent species on the planet. Barring major cosmic or geological bad luck, it was always going to turn out like this for humans. We are the way we are because of life's intrinsic drive to survive and expand its influence.
So what can we make of these seemingly endless fractal layers of reality and where it will go? The universe and the Earth are vastly more complex, ordered and interesting now than they were in their chaotic, overheated and tempestuous early states. That gives me hope for the future that life will probably become something truly incredible, an optimism you appear to share.