Have you ever gotten so engrossed in a story that you forgot where you were? Lost track of your body, and got swept away in the world the words built for you, only to be dragged back down into cold, hard reality by a sneeze, or a tickle in your throat, or a crick in your neck? Sometimes, it seems like it would be much for convenient to be pure thought, and not to have to fuss about with a physical body at all.
Bodies have an annoying tendency to complicate our lives. We get sick, become flustered or aroused, become injured. Chemicals in our brains inhibit us from thinking rationally, and feeling appropriately. People have been struggling with the skin we’re all stuck in for a long time now. The Gnostics, an ancient Greek sect, inspired by multiple philosophies, including Platonism and early Christianity, went so far as to say that all physical being was evil, and only the spiritual was good.
If someone were able to strip themselves of material concerns entirely, while still remaining alive and active, that would be an impressive feat indeed. Would it really make that person superior, though? Science fiction stories have generated a lot of conversation around the topic, and the verdict is still out.
Star Trek, of course, has dozens examples of incorporeal aliens, both good and evil, but one of the episodes that stands out the most is “Errand of Mercy” from the original series. Kirk and Spock go down to a seemingly primitive planet, Organia, to warn the inhabitants of an impending Klingon invasion. The inhabitants frustrate the Starfleet officers with their passivity, until they reveal that their physical forms are illusions. They are actually super-intelligent, super-powerful energy beings. This episode stands out because it not only deals with the idea of energy beings being infinitely superior to physical ones, but it also depicts the formless Organians as having put away racism. Race is generally defined as a set of physical characteristics. So, without physical form, the Organians no longer deal with racism.
Following in the tradition of dense, thought-provoking science fiction like 2001: A Space Odyssey, the film Interstellar (2014) imagines a future in which humans transcend physical form. This time, the enlightened race is so powerful that they can even reach through time, and write their own history.
The Stargate (1997-2007) television universe has its own version of this trope in the ascended race, the Ancients. On one of the many occasions on which he dies, Dr. Daniel Jackson is visited by one of these ascended beings, and joins them in their ethereal state. Stargate, though, paints a rather cynical picture of the enlightened ancients. While they have seemingly limitless power, they limit themselves by making rules against interfering with the physical world. Dr. Jackson learns these rules the hard way when he attempts to use his power to assist the surviving members of his team on their missions.
It might be nice, at least for a day, to be able to cast off the weight of the weaknesses of our physical bodies. But without that weakness, what kind of power would we have? And what would we do with that power?
Those questions are still relegated to the realm of speculation. We can, however, choose to look at the benefits of having physical form. Think of the pleasure of eating food, or of positive physical touch with people and animals. Consider the thrill of seeing a rainbow of colors streak across the sky, or the satisfaction of listening and dancing to good music. Maybe those hypothetical light beings, powerful as they may seem, are really the ones missing out.