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Between an Animal and a Machine

Stanisław Lem’s Technological Utopia


Paweł Majewski

The subject of this book is the philosophy of Stanisław Lem. The first part contains an analysis and interpretation of one of his early works, The Dialogues. The author tries to show how Lem used the terminology of cybernetics to create a project of sociology and anthropology. The second part examines Lem’s essay Summa technologiae, which is considered as the project of human autoevolution. The term «autoevolution» is a neologism for the concept of humans taking control over their own biological evolution and form in order to improve the conditions of their being. In this interpretation, Summa is an example of a liberal utopia, based on the assumption that all human problems can be resolved by science. Various social theories, which can be linked to the project of autoevolution, are presented in the final part.

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3 Philosophical Implications of Cybernetics

3Philosophical Implications of Cybernetics

The philosophical positioning of cybernetics was never clearly delineated. While explaining the place of his new field within the intellectual history, Wiener mentioned Leibniz, as well as Augustine and the Manicheans,46 but he was never particularly interested in the consequences of the emergence of cybernetics for contemporary philosophy. Cybernetics strongly, albeit misleadingly, resembles the 18th-century mechanicism. It is misleading because Descartes and La Mettrie sought to apply mechanistic interpretation to a physical and mental whole that is a human, which means they saw consciousness as correlative to mechanistic processes as well.47 The cyberneticists – and I mean the early ones – never shared that view.48 They would not touch on the problem of consciousness at all.49 Human body was interesting to them on the level of ←31 | 32→neurophysiological processes, of nervous impulses – they were not interested in consciousness and subjecthood. They were careful to avoid metaphysical speculation, aiming for the discipline to exhibit scientific precision. In his work The Computer and the Brain (1958), which was mentioned here earlier, von Neumann gave a description of logical operations in a computer and nervous impulses (in accordance with contemporary level of technology and knowledge) and wrote: “the most immediate observation regarding the nervous system is that its functioning is prima facie digital” (40, 44). Later, however, it turns out that the analogy is merely superficial (so, literally, prima facie), as in fact “the language of the brain is not the language of mathematics” (81). There is no declaration of the kind that “human is a machine.” von Neumann cannot be counted among cyberneticists, but Wiener, too, writes at the beginning of chapter 7 of Cybernetics: or Control… titled “Cybernetics and Psychopathology”: “I therefore wish to disclaim in advance any assertion that any particular entity in psychopathology … is due to a specific type of defect in the organization of the brain as a computing machine. Those who may draw such specific conclusions from the consideration of this book do so at their own risk” (144). And elsewhere in the same book (chapter 5: “Computing machines and the nervous system”) he observes: “The mechanical brain does not secrete thought ‘as the liver does bile,’ as the earlier materialists claimed, nor does it put it out in the form of energy, as the muscle puts out its activity. Information is information, not matter or energy. No materialism which does not admit this can survive at the present day” (132).

Cyberneticists were not particularly interested in the ethical implications of their research either. Another quote from Wiener is probably the strongest statement on the subject:

Those of us who have contributed to the new science of cybernetics thus stand in a moral position which is, to say the least, not very comfortable. We have contributed to the initiation of a new science which, as I have said, embraces technical developments with great possibilities for good and for evil. We can only hand it over into the world that exists about us, and this is the world of Belsen and Hiroshima. We do not even have the ←32 | 33→choice of suppressing these new technical developments. They belong to the age, and the most any of us can do by suppression is to put the development of the subject into the hands of the most irresponsible and most venal of our engineers. The best we can do is to see that a large public understands the trend and the bearing of the present work, and to confine our personal efforts to those fields, such as physiology and psychology, most remote from war and exploitation. … I write in 1947, and I am compelled to say that it is a very slight hope. (28–29)

Wiener’s persona of a public intellectual kept struggling with his soul of an academic. The former would draw powerful visions of social change brought about by cybernetics, while the latter – as we have seen – rejected the possibility of investigating society with the use of cybernetics, even though he never concealed his interest in social sciences:

As to sociology and anthropology, it is manifest that the importance of information and communication as mechanisms of organization proceeds beyond the individual into the community. On the one hand, it is completely impossible to understand social communities such as those of ants without a thorough investigation of their means of communication, and we were fortunate enough to have the aid of Dr. Schneirla in this matter. For the similar problems of human organization, we sought help from the anthropologists Drs. Bateson and Margaret Mead; while Dr. Morgenstern of the Institute for Advanced Study was our adviser in the significant field of social organization belonging to economic theory. His very important joint book on games with Dr. von Neumann, by the way, represents a most interesting study of social organization from the point of view of methods closely related to, although distinct from, the subject matter of cybernetics. (Cybernetics: or Control…, 18–19)

Yet, elsewhere in the same book he states:

It may be that there is a mass sociology of the human animalcule, observed like the populations of Drosophila in a bottle, but this is not a sociology in which we, who are human animalcules ourselves, are particularly interested. We are not much concerned about human rises and falls, pleasures and agonies, sub specie aeternitatis. Your anthropologist reports the customs associated with the life, education, career, and death of people whose life scale is much the same as his own. Your economist is most interested in predicting such business cycles as run in their course in less than a generation or, at least, has repercussions which affect a man differentially at different stages of his career. Few philosophers of politics nowadays care to confine their investigations to the world of Ideas of Plato. (Cybernetics: or Control…, 163–164)

Social cybernetics emerged, grew and captivated many. To what effect I have shown on the Polish example. Why was it so? Why cybernetics had such a huge impact, incomparable to the impact of any of the natural sciences? Of course, thermodynamics, for example, developed rapidly in the 19th century and inspired a philosophical metaphor of the world as a heat engine that became ←33 | 34→quite popular in the humanities in the late 19th and early 20th century.50 But neither in this nor any other case can we observe such an overwhelming adoption on an entire vocabulary of a discipline. There has never been any social thermodynamics, which would inspire someone to calculate loops of hysteresis for the French Revolution.

Cybernetics offered something more though than any other discipline – or so it seemed at the time; it combined two fields of basic research: physics and biology. It focused on human body, human nervous system on a par with machines and their circuits and control systems. All these objects of study are categorized with the same terminology, but without vulgar mechanicism. Cybernetics was then a way to go beyond the nature–culture dichotomy, beyond the question about a qualitative difference between humans with their symbolic world and the rest of the natural world. Or at least it very much seemed like such a third way is possible, a way between arts and science, which were just then definitively parting ways, a phenomenon powerfully described in C. P. Snow’s essay Two Cultures.51 Certainly, there was something extremely appealing in the idea that a human, an animal and a machine are equal as systems primarily determined by the circulation of information in their control centers. The impression was that both scientists and humanities scholars received a universal shared model for all the phenomena they were dealing with. There was no reductionism involved – a human was not seen as a mere type of a machine, but as an entity equivalent to it, differing in structure and possibly some aspects of functioning.

Things could have seemed that way for those who first encountered cybernetics soon after it was created, in the 1950s, reading Wiener and Ashby – this is what the first wave of enthusiasm for the field looked like. This is also how later people such as Mazur and Kossecki saw cybernetics. However, a close reading of cybernetics’ foundational texts reveals that this universality was in fact an ←34 | 35→illusion. Cybernetics did not combine physics and biology in full; it only combined some narrow areas of these fields. It did not explain either humans or any other complex systems completely in their actions and functions – it was in fact only interested in some of their very abstract characteristics. Henryk Greniewski described it as follows:

Speaking in a bit of a joke (and one should not underestimate the didactic value of jokes): cybernetics does investigate animals, humans and telegraphs, but only in the way in which elementary geometry investigates both tree cutting, stone splitting and cutting metals. The same thought can be phrased “seriously” (for sticklers among the readers, of course): cybernetics investigates what is common in the process of communication for human nervous system and a telegraphic line in a highly abstract manner; similarly elementary geometry (or, more precisely, solid geometry) does deal with analyzing solid figures into its components, “forgetting” that they are approximate idealizations of actual solids, and remaining quite “uninterested” in whether the solid is actually a piece of wood, a stone or a metal. The applicability of cybernetic tools to all kinds of matter is neither new nor unique in science. The same quality applies to the arithmetical terminology for example, or the aforementioned geometry and probability theory. You can count stones, just as well as animals, humans or social bodies. Probability theory is equally applicable to decay of atoms in a radioactive body, and to the death rate of animals and people, and to draws and lotteries. (Elementy…, chapter 3.3: “Comparative Remarks on Terminology,” 57)

It is a great shame that the Polish social cyberneticists never took these words to their hearts. Their colleagues from other countries similarly ignored Wiener’s remarks about the risk related to applying cybernetic notions together with the methodology of the sciences in general to the object of social sciences. Here is one more of those remarks:

I mention this matter because of the considerable, and I think false, hopes which some of my friends have built for the social efficacy of whatever new ways of thinking this book may contain. They are certain that our control over our material environment has far outgrown our control over our social environment and our understanding thereof. Therefore, they consider that the main task of the immediate future is to extend to the fields of anthropology, of sociology, of economics, the methods of the natural sciences, in the hope of achieving a like measure of success in the social fields. From believing this necessary, they come to believe it possible. In this, I maintain, they show an excessive optimism and a misunderstanding of the nature of all scientific achievement.

All the great successes in precise science have been made in fields where there is a certain high degree of isolation of the phenomenon from the observer. …

It is in the social sciences that the coupling between the observed phenomenon and the observer is the hardest to minimize. On the one hand, the observer is able to exert a considerable influence on the phenomena that come to his attention. With all respect to the intelligence, skill, and honesty of purpose of my anthropologist friends, I cannot think ←35 | 36→that any community which they have investigated will ever be quite the same afterward. … There is much in the social habits of a people which is dispersed and distorted by the mere act of making inquiries about it. In another sense from that in which it is usually stated, traduttore traditore. (Cybernetics: or Control…, chapter 8: “Information, Language, and Society,” 162–163)

Claude Shannon said in an interview: “Somehow people think it [mathematical theory of information] can tell you things about meaning, but it can’t and wasn’t intended to.”52

There was no shortage of skeptical voices either, doubting cybernetics as a whole. For example John R. Pierce wrote in 1961 with a shade of subtle irony:

Some words have a heady quality; they conjure up strong feelings of awe, mystery, or romance. … I don’t believe that cybernetics is quite such a word, but it does have an elusive quality as well as a romantic aura. …

The trouble is that each of the many fields that Wiener drew intro cybernetics has a considerable scope in itself. It would take many thousands of words to explain the history, content, and prospects of any one of them. Lumped together, they constitute not so much an exciting country as a diverse universe of overwhelming magnitude and importance.

Thus, few men of science regard themselves as cyberneticists. Should you set out to ask, one after another, each person listed in American Men of Science what his field is, I think that few would reply cybernetics. If you persisted and asked, “Do you work in the field of cybernetics?” a man concerned with communication, or with complicated automatic machines such as computers, or with some parts of experimental psychology or neurophysiology would look at you and speculate on your background and intentions. If he decided that you were a sincere and innocent outsider, who would in any event never get more than a vague idea of his work, he might well reply, “yes.”

So far, in this country the word cybernetics has been used most extensively in the press and in popular and semi-literary, if not semiliterate, magazines. I cannot compete with these in discussing the grander aspects of cybernetics. Perhaps Wiener has done that best himself in I Am a Mathematician. Even the more narrowly technical content of the fields ordinarily associated with the word cybernetics is so extensive that I certainly would never try to explain it all in one book, even a much larger book than this. … cybernetics includes most of the essence of modern technology, excluding the brute production and use of power. It includes our knowledge of the organization and function of man as well. Cybernetics almost becomes another word for all of the most intriguing problems of the world. … Thus, even if a man acknowledged being a cyberneticist, that wouldn’t give us much of a clue concerning his field of competence, unless he was a universal genius. … ←36 | 37→Happily, as I have noted, few scientists would acknowledge themselves as cyberneticists, save perhaps in talking to those whom they regard as hopelessly uninformed. Thus, if cybernetics is overextensive or vague, the overextension or vagueness will do no real harm. Indeed, cybernetics is a very useful word, for it can help to add a little glamor to a person, to a subject, or even to a book. I certainly hope that its presence here will add a little glamor to this one.53

Pierce mildly suggests that cybernetics is really an all-encompassing word, that can mean nearly anything, and it certainly is a scientific utopia. Was not the same written 15 years later about structuralism, and then, 30 years later – about postmodernism, the subsequent potential “universal perspectives”?

On the other hand, David Jay Bolter in his Turing’s Man… – which is a remarkable attempt to root the computer technology within the Western culture as a whole – writes about cybernetics:

Wiener’s work with servomechanisms to aim antiaircraft guns and to do much else besides had convinced him that forms of life could be understood not as Cartesian clockwork, which was too crude and rigid, but rather as electromechanical or even electronic devices. … he stressed direct contact with the world – experiments with the muscles of the cat, improved prostheses for amputees, sensing equipment, and so on. Current workers in artificial intelligence show less interest in such direct contact with the world and more interest in abstract thought. Wiener was still only halfway along the line from Descartes to Turing. He wanted machines to imitate the man who acts in the world as well as the man who reasons, to explain muscle action in terms of feedback loops as well as chess in terms of digital program. He relied on hardware devices for his metaphor of man and demanded a close correspondence between man and the machine made to imitate him. Vacuum tubes were meant to be a physical substitute for neurons, servomechanisms for nerves acting upon muscles. This line of thinking was forthright and compelling, and led do attempts to build a brain (in theory, seldom in practice) using simple electronic components. Those following Wiener’s approach spoke of creating artificial brain cells and neutral networks and allowing the machine to learn as a baby was presumed to do – presuming with Locke that the baby’s mind was a tabula rasa at birth. But the theory of neural networks, which was developed mathematically, met with little or no practical success. In general, Wiener’s preferences gave way to others in the 1950’s, as computer hardware and especially programming languages became more sophisticated. Unfortunately, the elegant name of cybernetics … smacking perhaps of the antiquated technology of the war years, also gave way to “artificial intelligence.” (192–193) ←37 | 38→

Bolter is locating Wiener in the development plan of information and computer technology, which is not entirely true about the history of cybernetics, and this bias is particularly clear in the statement that artificial intelligence is simply a different name for cybernetics (Bolter apparently does not know that many institutions still use the name). It is equally unacceptable to say about the first Cybernetics, as Bolter does in his annotated bibliography to Turing’s Man, that it contains a “notion of identity of man and machine” – it’s clearly simplifying things too much. What is important for us here is that Bolter, too, sees cybernetics as a sort of scientific utopia.

Summing up what has been said and quoted here before, I could say that cybernetics is an example of a process where the intentions of the creators have little to do with those of their successors. The former have great ambitions hoping the latter would put them to life. The latter put them to life the way they see fit and the way that is possible given the available materials. The scenario repeats itself continuously throughout the history of science and culture, producing results of varying quality. In the case of Norbert Wiener the very creator was torn by mutually contradictory tendencies: scientific precision and the visionary scale.

It is quite possible that cybernetics was one of the great myths of the 20th century science. Its extraordinarily broad perspectives drew hordes of enthusiasts, believers and maniacs, who eventually dragged the discipline far from its origins, close to conspiracy theories and would-be-universalisms, and all the areas of human intellectual activity where doctrinaire shibboleths prevail over genuine curiosity, and the Ultimate Certainty produces deep thinking but neutralizes brains.

46Human Use of Human Beings…, 11, 34–35. It includes a juxtaposition of two basic perspectives: Augustinian and Manichean. Modern science exemplifies the Augustinian view, as it assumes intelligibility of nature, its “goodness” (the “bad,” Manichean nature would interfere with the cognitive process, through arbitrary changes in the laws of physics for example).

47About Descartes, cf. Cybernetics: or Control…, chapter 1: “Newtonian and Bergsonian Time,” 40–41.

48Of course, many of the proponents of cyberneticists were – likely unconsciously – mechanicists. Karl Steinbuch, for example, the author of Automat und Mensch (Berlin: Springer Verlag, 1961; 4th edition 1971), declares in the very first chapter, titled “Cybernetic Anthropology” (!): “The main thesis of this book is as follows: What can be observed in intellectual functions, are introducing, processing, storing and exporting information. In no case is it proven or even likely that explicating intellectual functions requires accepting assumptions that go beyond physics.”

49Here is a sample of Wiener’s style of dealing with what is today phrased as the mind–body problem: “We have already spoken of the computing machine, and consequently the brain, as a logical machine. It is by no means trivial to consider the light cast on logic by such machine, both natural and artificial. Here the chief work is that of Turing. We have said before that the machina ratiocinatrix is nothing but the calculus ratiocinator of Leibniz with an engine in it; and just as modern mathematical logic begins with this calculus, so it is inevitable that its present engineering development should cast a new light on logic. The science of today is operational; that is, it considers every statement as essentially concerned with possible experiments or observable processes. According to this, the study of logic must become a study of the logical machine, whether nervous or mechanical, with all its nonremovable limitations and imperfections. It may be said by some readers that this reduces logic to psychology, and that the two sciences are observably and demonstrably different. This is true in the sense that many psychological states and sequences of thought do not conform to the canons of logic. Psychology contains much that is foreign to logic, but – and this is the important fact – any logic that means anything to us can contain nothing which the human mind – and hence the human nervous system – is unable to encompass (Cybernetics: or Control…, 124–125).

50Cf. J. David Bolter, Turing’s Man: Western Culture in the Computer Age (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2014), 31–32. Bolter’s remarks on philosophical and scientific metaphors prevalent in particular periods in the history of Europe (clock, steam engine, heat engine and computer) repeat and elaborate on Wiener’s observations from Cybernetics: or Control… (cf. chapter 1: “Newtonian and Bergsonian Time,” 38–39). The whole period of positivism of the 19th century is an arena of mutual interactions between science and philosophy too.

51The essay constituted the text of a lecture given by Sir Charles Percy Snow (1905–1980), a physicist and novelist, in 1959. It started a long and turbulent discussion about the role of the humanities and science in the society and culture of the second half of the 20th century.

52The interview was made in November 1989 by John Horgan, quoted in: Idem, The End of Science. Facing the Limits of Knowledge in the Twilight of the Scientific Age (New York: Basic Books, 2015), 213.

53John R. Pierce, An Introduction to Information Theory. Symbols, Signals & Noise (New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1980), 208–210, 227–228. The book is in fact an extensive layman’s manual introducing Shannon’s theory and its derivates. ←38 | 39→