Science fiction and spirituality: post-physical life, part #1

My most recent participation to FantaScientificast (Italian podcast about science fiction) dates back to May 24th, during which I analysed the topic of post-physical life in science fiction. If you missed the episode (and of course understand Italian), you can listen to it here.
As usual, I’m back to dealing with this topic with a blog post.

Post-physical life in science fiction can be seen as a kind of metaphor of the immortality of the soul, as it is understood in the religious/spiritual scope. In a sense it is a way of representing (in literature, but also in movies, on TV, in comics and so on) the human ambition to defeat death, or at least to delay it as much as possible. The same happens in religions, which were born from the desire to give an answer to life’s big questions, including “where are we going?”. Religions often provide an answer to this question which implies the existence of a soul’s life that continues after the death of the body.
The thought of the possibility of a post-physical life, both in the religious/spiritual scope and science fiction, is a comfort for the fear of death, not only to believers in real life, but also (let’s face it) to those who read or watch science fiction stories (or for those who create them), if not in an absolute sense, at least when they are immersed in those worlds and lose touch with reality.

In science fiction there are different ways to represent the post-physical life, but it can be summarised in three approaches that I defined, respectively, soft, hard, and intermediate.

The soft approach is observed in those stories in which the characters after death, or for their choice at some point in their lives, “ascend” to a life of pure thought and may reappear in the narrated events as ghosts, emanations, or similar appearances. The ascension to a post-physical life leads to an indefinite existence in an alternate reality (a concept reminiscent of paradise). This step is not in any way scientifically explained and therefore the soft approach implies a strong drift to fantasy.

The hard approach, instead, is typically seen in cyberpunk or otherwise in science fiction that regards virtual reality. In this case, you are forced to refer to a more recent science fiction, following the advent of the Internet or just before it. 
In these stories the consciousness of the characters is digitalised (and this is an attempt at a scientific explanation) to create a virtual version that has the perception of being the original human (or alien), although it is not nothing more than a copy. This digital consciousness, which is a copy of a real one (artificial intelligence differs from this because it is, instead, created from scratch), is potentially immortal, just as the soul.
Although there’s an attempt to give a pseudo-scientific explanation, this type includes both hard and soft science fiction stories (like space operas), however this does not necessarily imply a drift to fantasy.

Finally we have the intermediate approach that is typical of stories created prior to the birth of the Internet and which combine scientific or pseudo-scientific aspects with spiritual or even dreamlike ones. Often the boundary between the two is not defined.

And now we come to a few examples. In this post I’ll just offer some on the first and the last approach, leaving the second one to another post that I will publish in a few days.

The soft approach no doubt includes the Star Wars saga, especially the old trilogy which was characterised by a halo of fantasy. In the new one they have then tried to give pseudo-scientific explanations, though not particularly convincing (and I would say useless). In particular I am referring to the fact that some Jedi, Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker, after the death of the body, reappear in the story in the form of “ghosts”. Actually in “Star Wars”, when Obi-Wan Kenobi is killed by Darth Vader, he dematerialises!
Another example of a soft approach is what is observed in the franchise of Stargate SG-1. Here we learn about the existence of an alien race, now “extinct”, i.e. the race of the Ancients, that doesn’t exist anymore in the real space-time as it is ascended. The ascension plays an important role in the various seasons of the series and its spin-off, because other races aspire to it, including even the Replicators in Stargate Atlantis, but they will never reach it as they aren’t organic beings. In this case the ascension to a post-physical life doesn’t necessarily follow death, but it is a state that the individuals, under certain conditions, can
achieve on their own will when they are alive, because it is regarded as much more desirable than physical life itself.

The classic example of the intermediate approach can be summed up in one name: Philip K. Dick.
In “Ubik”, for example, Dick combines the scientific element (the preservation of bodies of the dead that enables the maintenance of a small brain activity thanks to a not fully explained method) to the dreamlike aspect and a first invention of a “virtual reality” (in the sense of opposite to the real one) well before the birth of the Internet.
I won’t go into detail to avoid spoilers for those who haven’t read it yet, but this little information shows elements of the other two approaches, in particular the hard one, with the essential difference that when Dick wrote this book the Internet didn’t exist at all as well as it there wasn’t such a thing called virtual reality. These are true scientific speculations, made on the basis of the knowledge of the period, in which, however, you might even see something prophetic.

And here I stop. In the second post dedicated to this topic, however, I will focus on the examples regarding the hard approach in the representation of post-physical life in science fiction.