In the book 2001: A Space Odyssey, it is revealed that creatures can evolve past physical form. Could this actually happen? Could an organism actually move beyond corporeal existence? And would this new version be called a "soul?"
Turn their consciousnesses into computer programs.
Samuel argued that there is no known way to evolve beyond using DNA, while DaaaahWhoosh recommended artificial evolution. I agree with them both, in that I believe that nature will never move beyond physical, organic forms. However, the organisms themselves can use advanced technology to do so - namely, computers!
According to some answers here, this might be possible - at least, it might be possible to transform consciousnesses into software programs. The requirements here seem laxer, though, so I think the odds are better. To be able to say that a being has become a computer program, there are a side few requirements that must be satisfied:
- The things that make the being unique (its genetic code) must be represented. This can be done by representing DNA by binary code.
- The being must be able to take in input from its surroundings and influence its surroundings. This can be done by auxiliary devices controlled by the being. This emphasizes one important point: The creatures obviously still need something in order to run (namely, hardware), but they themselves are about as un-physical as possible.
Whether or not this method is valid is, like all other suggestions here, a philosophical question, but I feel like it is valid. After all, would you call a string of ones and zeros physical?
There is no mechanism known to us that would allow a creature to evolve past the point of using DNA. It doesn't rule out the possibility that the life forms could develop machines to convert themselves into energy or whatever is "past physical form". But it's not going to be a natural process.
Some might call these new creatures "souls", but it's an irrelevant designation. More likely any of the creatures remaining corporeal would have remained that way for a reason and would not treat those who have moved on with such reverence.
I think there are actually two questions here:
- Can an organism exist that is non-corporeal?
- Can an organism evolve to become non-corporeal?
As you can see, the second question really depends on the first. I would say that as we have no examples of non-physical life-forms, it's really hard to say if they're possible. I mean, just think about it, what would they be made of? Nothing, of course. But if they are something, then what? Maybe they're made of light, or energy, or some other thing that exists that is not matter. I don't think this question can be very satisfactorily answered, so let's assume it's a yes.
The next question, about evolution, brings to my mind the concept of intermediate forms. Between physical and not physical there has to be some sort of middle ground, some sort of half-physical missing link. Over many generations, your organisms will have to become less and less corporeal until there is nothing physical left.
Again, without knowing the final form of this organism, it's hard to say if this could be accomplished, but I would at least like to point out that non-corporeality should be immediately beneficial in some way. If your demi-corporeal creatures can't mate with anyone, or can't defend themselves or sustain themselves, and can't do all of these things better than the competition, then it's very likely any non-corporeal mutations won't last.
A far more probable method is to achieve non-corporeality through artificial evolution. Just look at humans: we developed larger brains for a long time, then in the last century we massively increased our thinking power not through evolution but through the invention of computers. For a long time, human ingenuity has achieved more for our species than evolution could accomplish in millions or even billions of years. We've even been able to create things that don't directly, immediately benefit ourselves, such as space travel. I think that if non-corporeal life-forms exist or ever will exist, it will be not through evolution, but through the inventions of a highly intelligent species.
(slightly tangential)EDIT: Thinking about souls got me to considering the possible example of a human being as an intermediate form between physical and non-physical. In Christianity, animals don't have souls, and since humans evolved from animals (I realize the possible contradictions here, just go with it), it stands to reason that at some point in time humans evolved to have souls. Keep in mind that the intervention of a soul-creator such as God would fall under my last point, of artificial evolution, so let's assume God sat back and let it happen. It is believed that the soul is created upon conception, but lives on after death, so it seems like the body is only needed at the beginning of life, and may be discarded almost immediately, which sounds like we're pretty close to evolving past physicality.
The thing is, the soul seems more like a parasite than part of the body. It only uses the body as a means to procreate, kind of like how a facehugger can only give birth into a human's stomach. If humans evolve to be completely non-corporeal, it would be more like the parasite evolving to be self-sufficient, but since the soul was never physical in the first place, that jump from physical to non-physical wouldn't have happened.
I'm thinking... yes. No. Depends. Can your species evolve to, as in 2001, make technology to do this? We won't know for a long time. But if you believe in 'souls,' then it could be accomplished by slowly dropping the reproductive 'creatures' down to zero. At this point, with no physical mass, they would no longer have any ability to make more of themselves, evolution's biggest spiel. But on the other hand, with no matter, or corporeal form, they wouldn't have to worry about that.
The answers to this are frustratingly dependent on the specific definitions of words that we tend to like to think need no definition, like "evolve," "existence," and "soul." Accordingly, expect no final answers.
That being said, there's a tempting approach to consider for defining some of these concepts. In particular, consider what it means for a being to be "corporeal." It tends to vaguely mean they have matter, but when you consider an empirical meaning to the word, it has to deal with how things interact. We can't detect matter directly. We detect their interactions, whether gravitational or electromagnetic, or otherwise. We can see that an object is between us and the sun because we believe we should be seeing photons from the sun, and we are not seeing them. Thus, we presume something must be blocking them.
From this approach, "corporeal" has picked up an interesting meaning. Now it means that a third party cannot detect any interactions they would deem corporeal. This fits quite well with the definitions needed for 2001: A Space Odyssey. A creature would be deemed incorporeal if we have no way of detecting the presence of their corporeal body.
Of course, to be interesting, such a body does need to interact with the world. We can presume infinite such bodies that do not interact, but the interesting cases of incorporeal entities, such as ghosts, do interact. They just do it in a way that is hard to trace causally to matter that is categorized as "part of their body." To have meaningful interactions with the world, such a being would have to understand the world around them well enough to find ways to amplify the tiniest interactions, and then be "elsewhere" before someone can causally trace what they've done.
Why might an individual undergo such a transformation? One benefit of this approach is that it is remarkably efficient with energy. One always applies the absolute minimum amount of energy possible to solve any particular problem.
Interestingly enough, efficiency of energy usage is oft cited as a desire. This suggests that not only is there a possible path to incorporeality, that it might actually be along the path of any given martial art, reigion, or any other social structure which extols the virtue of efficiency.
The foremost thing to realize when discussing a question like this is that you're asking whether it can happen, which is actually a question about two things:
- What is a consciousness/individual?
- What do we not know about the world?
And unsurprisingly the answer to both is that we don't know. Like seriously, popular media might try creating the illusion that the consciousness is just the brain and that it's all perfectly understood, but at university in our introductory course about human physiology literally every second paragraph about the brain finished with 'we don't get this yet'. We have no idea what a free will is and our theoretical deterministic models do not match the models we believe in and act by. And the same goes for the second point, we obviously do not know what we do not know, so saying what realistically could be discovered in the future is a terrible question (and yes, I did downvote the question because of this).
But a far more interesting question and on-topic question on worldbuilding.SE is about how you can justify such an evolution in a story. The first thing to look at then is which things are mass-less (thus without material form) and then create some kind of network which at least at some level resembles the human brain. Within those boundaries you can probably come up with a justification for about anything. Let's go with light as our mass-less basis (or any other form of radiation), it can interact with other light reflect around a bit, etc. A creature in such a model would then be maybe as big as a couple of galaxies and thought processes would probably be really slow. Evolving into such a create could be either 'natural' or artificial. In the first case you could for example claim that there is a creature which emits light naturally to originally communicate and as this communication becomes more and more complex and starts to span more and more generations a point can maybe come where this network of interacting light starts to have it's own consciousness (if that's how you define conciousness in your world). In the second case it's far easier and you can simply state that either God or scientists sat down for a bit and helped such a process along.
Now, all of that assumes that you wish to keep point number 2 in check as much as possible and keep the knowledge in-universe similar to knowledge in the real world. Both realistically speaking and story wise this of course entirely unrealistic, so if you want you can simply think up an alternative form of being in which a creature exists and set up artificial rules to reach such a state of being (e.g. as with Stargate). Technically speaking this could be considered more realistic than the first option, however it will feel more alien and thus unrealistic (scifi-y) to most readers.
Which kind of approach you choose is all up to you, but that's the cool part about creating worlds about stuff we don't know: You have a lot of freedom, just be aware of this freedom and don't let sciencism limit you.
Maybe some species already have evolved this way. How would we know?
I'm having a hard time trying to come up with a reason why a species would evolve this way. Evolution is largely driven by adapting to the environment, so what in the environment would lead to this? Evolution also takes thousands if not millions of years. During the transitional period, until we finally shed our bodies, are we going to be partly physical and partly not?
The coelacanth has been around for roughly 400 million years. You would think that if any species was going to move beyond corporeal existence, it would be the one that has been around for the longest time. But not the coelacanth. Maybe it just isn't trying hard enough.