Stanley Salthe has turned me on to Ilya Prigogine's neat term, "dissipative structures." It updates the idea of pantheism. Instead of looking for the origins of intelligence and consciousness in matter itself it suggests looking for them in the processes by which concentrations of energy in natural systems dissipate. This appeals to me because it neatly labels a continuum of concepts from non-living matter all the way to our own conscious experience. It may not suggest any answers to how life or consciousness arose but it could furnish us with a better language in which to phrase the questions.
Here's how Salthe introduced the phrase. Of the inapplicability of physics to such unique events as the origin of life, the big bang, and consciousness he wrote
Well, of course, the emergence of consciousness is 'the hard problem' It too is inconceivable by way of physicochemical discourse. I have concluded that it is best to assume that all dissipative structures have some degree of consciousness as generated by their activities. This obviates the need to imagine its emergence in brains. Brains would just happen to be forms that facilitate FOCUSING. Non-brain types, like trees would be experiencing something like the meditative state, and big ones like drainage systems would be so 'slow' compared to our scale as to be undetectable by us.
I see a cascade of terms supported by the phrase "dissipative structures" starting thus: the emergence of a purely physical dissipative structure such as a river basin invokes network effects amounting to some rudiment of intelligence. Next: associated with this intelligence would be a potential for consciousness. Further: evolution of life would be an increment in the efficiency of such dissipative structures. Finally: in organisms with brains evolution would focus sufficient potential for consciousness for it to become volitional consciousness.
Note: this is not intended to be defensible in terms of physics and logic. Rather, it harnesses traditional terms such as "network," "intelligence," "potential for consciousness," implicitly the actualization of a potential, and "consciousness of consciousness" into a primitive vocabulary stretching from processes in non-living matter to volitional consciousness. That's all I value in it.
To my question, Does what one can deduce about dissipative structures illuminate the nature of evolution, he replied:
Many of them do not last long enough to evolve. They do, however, develop in simple ways. But more complex ones, like drainage systems, could certainly be seen to evolve. They also develop, and their evolution amounts to individuation This occurs even with simple ones like tornadoes. Organic evolution occurs the way we see it because of the internally stored information. So, organisms are exceptionally stable dissipative structures (again because of that stored info), and it is that stability that affords a 'visible' evolution.
Another question: Is there a process of complexification among dissipative structures that one can imagine grading into evolution of life? To this he replied:
I can't imagine anything "grading into" the genetic system. The way I see it, the origin of life (infection by genome) took place in a larger scale, fairly stable dissipative structure involving water. This larger structure gradually evolved into microscopic and mesoscopic living forms.
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Stanley N. Salthe is Professor Emeritus, Brooklyn College of the City University of New York, Visiting Scientist in Biological Sciences, Binghamton University, and Associate Researcher of the Center for the Philosophy of Nature and Science Studies of the University of Copenhagen.