I am starting to play with the idea that the physical organism is really like a transport, and the 'payload' is consciousness, and all of the countless fascinating things that us humans can get involved in. I see humans as being 'life coming to consciousness', the very process by which the universe discovers itself. We are life made conscious, discovering itself in a giant game of hide-and-seek. (a la Alan Watts). And because humans are actually fully self conscious and capable of asking 'who or what am I'? they are categorically different to creatures. They are the Universe coming to life.
Although i don't subscribe to the point of view that you develop here, i think i can add some ideas that might be interesting for you.
First of all i see your question as a result of a need to find a compromise between science and spirituality.
I appreciate that. There is a huge gap between science and spirituality, but i think there is also a new understanding of scientific recognitions that brings science somewhat closer to spirituality.
What i will suggest here differs from your ideas in many points, however it may provide some enriching aspects.
You will find my perspective materialist naturalist and even reductionist, but nonetheless let's see how far we get.
You say "I see humans as being 'life coming to consciousness', the very process by which the universe discovers itself."
My perspective would be: Not humans, but life is the process by wich the universe discovers itself.
I don't regard humans as the central point. However these two perspectives are not so different. It's just that humans are the most elaborate form of life we know.
So these two views are not contradictory.
H. Maturana and F. Varela were the two scientists who developed the common theory of autopoiesis as the process of life.
Autopoiesis is not a concept that you will understand after reading a page on Wikipedia, it's complex and related to other topics interdisciplinaryly.
That's why it is not widely understood. And that's also why most people will not understand the following:
Maturana and Varela regard Life itself as a process of cognition.
You already see the difference to your point of view - It's not humans, it's life itself.
Life is not an entity (thus this idea is not metaphysical), it's a process groping in a phase space.
Honestly this idea can not be understood unless you know (and really understand) what the word phase space
I tried to explain this term in a different thread.
Whoever finds it boring or already knows it may want to leave out this paragraph.
First of all we need to know what is meant by a phase space. Some people who know the word remember that it's an abstract mathematical construct that can consist of more than three or even four dimensions, so it's almost impossible for normal humans to imagine how it's supposed to work.
Well, this is what some people like to make it look like, but actually it's something very simple to understand. Everybody has already seen what a graph looks like. A typical graph has two axes and a curve in it. I am consciously oversimplifying because i want to get rid of any unnecessary mathematical abstraction.
The two axes are typically named x and y or time and space or whatever. Many systems like a car accelerating can be described by only two axes . Some systems however are more complex. More axis are necessary to describe them, maybe four or five (or even 10, it doesn't matter). Such a system could for example try to describe relations between economic factors: Gross national product, unemployment, inflation, economic growth.
This graph is going to have four axes already. This is a fourdimensional phase space, so easy.
In other words the four dimensions don't even have anything to do with space and time, even though could, depending on the system we observe.
What's complicated to imagine is: How would you draw four axes in space? The first three are easy: One would go upwards, one to the right, one to the depth, but number four can hardly be drawn. But it doesn't matter, still it's only a theoretical axis. It's only a question of how you present it.
Instead of trying to draw a fourdimensional phase space in space you could also decide to choose a more simple way: Draw six normal graphs instead with two axes each, to describe the above system.
That's all the magic there is to the higher dimensional phase space. Its dimensions can be anything you dream about. There only has to be a logical connection between the axes somehow. Otherwise your system does not contain information.
So much for the explanation of phase space.
This is a very unscientifical descripton though. You may want to look up Wiki or other sources to get a more scientific understanding.
One more word about it: A phase space is not something that has a metaphysical existence. There are billions of possible phase spaces depending on what kind of system we are looking at.
So whenever we talk about phase space, we talk about a particular phase space which is one out of many.
One needs to understand that reality to us seems pretty much defined by time and space. However this is a perception based on our physical appearance and thus one of the first errors we are subject to and one of the primary veils around reality that is otherwise called Maya.
In other words time and space are what we perceive first and thus make it the primal constituents of reality.
However any other axis is no less relevant.
We tend to look at the stars and say "Oh look how tiny and insignificant we are in space", however in a different phase space things look totally different. For example in a graph that shows the entropy levels in the universe we are extremely extraordinary.
Regarding the size of something as primarily relevant is one of our first Maya experiences.
Actually regarding space as primarily relevant is one of our first Maya experiences.
A phase space can regard anything. For describing life it is likely to have axis like 'entropy' 'energy' 'information'. This reality is just as existent as time and space.
One of the first life forms - bacteria - were digging deeply in the phase space area of energy. In this (particular) phase space all of life was attracted by areas of energy sources.
In the beginning it was light.
In later stages of development other living creatures turned out to be energy sources.
Anyway, life was groping in phase space reaching for energy sources.
If you draw it in a graph, you realize that life has always been attracted by energy sources (This is one of the major facts about life).
Life (as a phenomenon) being attracted by energy sources is the first aspect to see how life gropes in its phase space.
It kind of stretches its fingers to wherever it can. Which is first of all where energy is.
Interestingly it is successfull in stretching out its fingers.
Life found a way of finding the places where energy is in the first place, and later even realised that living creatures are themselves energy sources (when you eat them).
This is not very romantic, but it's a story of recognition.
There is an incredible number of phase spaces that life has explored and thus recognised.
(The description i made is a very simple attempt. Probably very insufficient. However i hope i could give a somewhat understandable idea of what Maturana and Varela mean.)
That's why i would say life itself is how the universe is exploring itself. It's in a process of self exploration. You could also call it becoming aware of itself. Mankind is the most elaborate outcome of this process on earth. In humans the universe is becoming really self reflective because the recognition goes further than only what is relevant to the individual life form. Humans are the first stage of the universe' self recognition.
The first life forms were able to recognise the environment that is directly perceivable to them.
Humans look deep into time and space now.
You could call them the second step of a universal evolution.
However they are still subject to Maya.
Which means their perspectives are still completely filtered and distorted by the biological ballast they carry.
Their perspectives are still anthropocentrical.
And more than that - egoistical.
At this time we are in a stage in which a normal human being hardly looks over the horizon of its own interest.
However i think the universal evolution might head towards a point where this stage will be overcome.