Stanisław Lem’s Technological Utopia
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.
6 Attempt at an Interpretation
What does it all lead to? I should perhaps start with a commentary to the last dialogue. Similarly to Lem’s early novels, it is a declaration of faith in our species’ auto-creative power. Yes, we are all capable of making a leap into the realm of enlightened happiness. Science would be our stepping stone. If we read what Lem had to say about human nature in the last years of his life – in his column Rozważania sylwiczne [“Silva rerum deliberations”] – it will turn out that with age he turned from a noble progressive to a determined conservatist, as one would be hard pressed to find anything other than bitter rants on the unchangeability of human vices in his late texts. With time he himself thought that “Dialogues are characterized by an excessive hope and faith in cybernetics.”72
The observation is only an aside, although it would be possible to write an interpretation of his entire work along this evolutionary line, with the intermediary stage of moderate skepticism, when his best novels were written.73 This modest vision could also be compared to the grand project of autoevolution from Summa Technologiae, which I will analyze in Part Two of this book and which was created still at the “optimist” stage of Lem’s thought. At this point, however, I am primarily interested in what can be learned from Dialogues in the 21st century.
Lem’s plan was ambitious to say the least. Dialogues seem to be a preliminary project of a total anthropology based on the fundamentals of cybernetics, a project outlined with a great care for methodological moderation.74 That this is “an anthropology,” and not merely “a sociology” is visible from the range of the problematic, which is not limited to social issues only, but which in fact ranges from metaphysics to psychology. Lem clearly made it his goal to summarize all the most fundamental problems of the human world, and especially those, which ensue from the rapid intrusion of technology into it. ←51 | 52→
The scope makes it hard to produce an interpretation of Dialogues. In Chapters 1 and 2, I suggested that cybernetics split into two heterogeneous branches: the very technical science and the vague social commentary. Dialogues do not really belong to either. They are too general for the technological cybernetics, and too detailed for its social counterpart. They are an intellectual project of their own.
How valuable is the project really though? The critique of the socialist system was certainly accurate, but, just as many other such critiques, expressed in a more common language, it had no actual effect. The futurological visions in Dialogue 7 and 8 did not come true in the least bit (Lem himself would mock the formerly trendy futurology in the 1970s and 1980s). The philosophical issues caused by the introduction of information technology into the living world (e.g., mind–body problem, and the philosophical foundations of artificial intelligence, AI) were described in Dialogues with rare precision and insight, but in 2017 we are, it seems, equally removed from their solutions as we were back in 1957. It seems that if Lem planned Dialogues that would actively contribute to the social practice – the intention was not fulfilled.
Dialogues could also be treated as a purely intellectual endeavor, a survey showing that cybernetics could be effectively applied as a tool for analyzing the social world. It requires turning a blind eye on the explicitly interventionist tone of the two final dialogues. However, even in this case it turns out that they have not achieved this goal to a satisfactory degree. Not because they were trivial or derivative – quite the opposite – but because the cybernetics itself has been removed into the archives of ideas and science. In their basic shape Dialogues (sauf the annexes) are a fortress built for a lost army. It is a sad paradox – as Lem saw the imminent failure earlier than others, and yet he wrote the book that exceeded the achievements of the other Polish cyberneticists (and likely foreign, too) many times, while the others continued to defend the position of their discipline, when it was already marginalized.
It begs notice that Dialogues prove that there is a full analogy between the universe of cybernetic notions and the world of human problems; or – in other words – that it is possible to translate the old system of notions describing the world into the system of cybernetic notions, and that it would lead into an at least partial solving of social and philosophical issues. Mazur’s Cybernetyka i społeczeństwo was a similar attempt, but intellectually infinitely more primitive. I need to point out that the attempts to frame the social world from a cybernetic perspective are not explanatory in character – either scientifically, or philosophically. Similarly to structuralism, for example, cybernetics did not explain reality; ←52 | 53→it described it. This description seemed so revelatory for more than a decade that it was expected to explain everything.
This analogy positions Lem when writing Dialogues beyond the opposition of naturalism and culturalism. This, too, should be emphasized, because the question about the type of view he held on human nature surfaces often in the critical texts. His view on the matter was by no means unchangeable and coherent, as Lem is neither a meliorist nor a pejorist, just as he is not merely a naturalist or merely a culturalist – in this latter case the methodology and theory he took up in Dialogues place him beyond this particular opposition. For the interlocutors of Dialogues, human is a creature biologically constituted – the evolution process, itself shaped by the laws of physics, determines “the boundary conditions” of our existence and growth. Yet within this frame our growth goes beyond the materialist concept of nature. From the very beginning Lem assumes that there is a nonbiological element in us as well.75 His penchant for social engineering, which is clear in Dialogues for the first time, is a constant quality in his work. It will keep coming back in Summa Technologiae as well (although only in a limited way), and in many other works of fiction, from Eden to The Star Diaries.
One could ask here, whether the phrase “cybernetics as an anthropology” is not internally contradictory, derived from the fact that the former is a science, while the other belongs to the realm of Geisteswissenschaften and in some its variants has nothing to do with any kind of scientific character.76 Indeed, there is a fundamental aporia here, but it does not lie in the terminology, but in its deepest premises behind the very foundations of the book. Lem tries to explain human there using terms that were coined for a very different purpose. Because he is treating cybernetics as the foundation for a specific anthropology, none of the problems taken up by the interlocutors in Dialogues is fully solved. The subject of the conversations and the method of considering it are heterogeneous, but not in the hundreds of details, which are discussed accurately and fruitfully, but in the most general plan of the whole, when it turns out, that all arguments are entangled like the geoglyphs on the Nazca desert, the patterns of which can only be seen from the bird’s eye view. ←53 | 54→
If Dialogues cannot be treated as “a manual of society building,” or as “a treaty on the first principles” – then there is one more, third way to interpret it. They can be seen as an important stage in the author’s intellectual development. I believe Dialogues cannot be understood without the knowledge of what cybernetics used to be, just as Lem’s later works cannot really be understood without knowing about Dialogues. The themes that will be important in Summa Technologiae, The Philosophy of Chance, Science Fiction and Futurology, not to mention the less prominent theoretical texts and fictions, were first taken up in Dialogues. The author took them up, and then critically recapitulated them in the annexes, to which I shall now turn.
The first annex, Dialogues after 16 years, includes two texts: Losing Illusions: From Intelectronics to Information Technology, and Applied Cybernetics: An Example from the Field of Sociology. In the first one, Lem summarizes the history of cybernetics between 1957 and 1971 in detail, pointing out how it diverges from cybernetic predictions of it. The overview includes the links between cybernetics and the theory of information, information technology conceived as a study of building and programming computers, semiotics, neurophysiology and genetics. Emphasizing again the huge difficulties of trying to conceive of all these disciplines coherently together, he admits that he has fallen short of this task. On the other hand, the growing problems with reproducing the working of the brain in machine systems – problems that were rarely foreseen by anyone apart from Lem back in the 1950s (such as the technical difficulties in building systems freely imitating human motile capacity, spacial orientation, shape recognition, etc.) – led to this particular trend in the development of cybernetics, which was most interesting to Lem, being largely slowed down. But even this failure leads Lem to some valuable conclusions. He asks: “if indeed we build computers, but we are incapable of building brain simulators, because the first task proved to be immeasurably easier than the latter one, then why did the natural evolution choose the more difficult of these two tasks?” (317–318). The answer contains one of the most fundamental theses of Lem’s all philosophical writings: it happened so because the biological evolution is a stochastic process, not targeting any particular goal, and therefore testing innumerable variants throughout hundreds of millions of years – whereas human projects and products nearly always have a specific goal, and hence, in comparison with the products of biological evolution, they are highly narrowly specialized. The statement is trivial and obvious to any student of biology when phrased this way, but Lem will draw far-reaching conclusions from it. I will discuss them further throughout this work. The rest of the annex ←54 | 55→is devoted to some of the most important problems troubling contemporary cybernetic and computer technology.77
The text about “applied cybernetics,” on the other hand, develops in Dialogue 7 – it is an in-depth analysis of the pathologies of the system of centrally planned economy in communist Poland. By the time Lem wrote Dialogue 7, these pathologies have become striking – here he only pointed out the increasing “undercurrent” of informal relations that underlay the failing state machine.78 The cybernetic terminology he uses to describe these phenomena departs considerably from correspondence with the technical terminology of Wiener, Ashby and other forefathers of the discipline, and it becomes more and more similar to the elaborate imagery I wrote about when discussing Mazur and Kossecki79 – but, of course, Lem uses the terms with intellectual mastery that cannot be compared to what those authors were capable of. The pertinent quotation would be:
When the central authority loses the view of the existing state of things, because it unknowingly set in motion pathological steering circuits, which, abusing the regulative cycles, cause disturbances on other levels, gradually the entire economic organism of the society falls into tracks of unpredictable changes. A superficial judgment might lead to a conclusion that the emergence of informal managing groups is a positive phenomenon as a spontaneously born form (sic!) allowing for overcoming the obstacles. From this point of view the only alternative to such groups being formed are completely haphazard actions: when an excessive and physically impossible plan cannot be carried out in full, the options are to carry out a part of it, with the part either chosen haphazardly, or by choosing a part that is privileged through a silent agreement of “informal management.” This type of argument, however, is essentially false. There is no such alternative. The plan is never carried out haphazardly, because those who implement it are not logically ←55 | 56→programmed automata, but humans. Each of them is at first trying to act in accordance with the accepted procedures, but since they encounter resistance – the infamous objective difficulties – those who formally are still partners become, in fact, rivals, just as they would be in a free market economy, with the one significant difference that the situation of competition, i.e. of colliding efforts from individual managers, not foreseen in the plan, is simply illegal. Yet, it exists; if not everything will be carried out, the fulfillment of specific parts is determined based on criteria and circumstances previously unaccounted for: personal relationships and connections. (339)
It is hard not to admire such an insightful analysis. In an essay from the early 1980s (Mój pogląd na literaturę)80 Lem wrote that “the diagnosis of our ailments with elements of forecast, which I gave in the 2nd edition of Dialogues, turned out to be terribly true” (199). And in the collection of interviews with Stanisław Bereś, Lem said: “I was myself astonished, how much of what I have written [in Dialogues] was confirmed.”81 However, this critique of the communist Poland contained in Dialogue 7 and the essay Cybernetyka stosowana lost its power with the fall of communism, and it only continued to make sense as an example of excellent social critique.
Annex 2 consists of two essays, which have little to do with cybernetics, but a lot with Summa Technologiae – they were published after its first edition. By discussing them here, I will introduce the second part of this work, which will be devoted to Lem’s Summa Technologiae.
Ethics of Technology and Technology of Ethics was originally a paper delivered at a conference on moral dilemmas in science, held by the Department of Philosophical Questions in Natural Science of the Institute of Philosophy and Sociology of the Polish Academy of Science (December 24–25, 1966). It is an attempt to determine the mutual influence between two evolutionary lines of the contemporary civilization: the technological progress and the transformation of ethical norms. It seems that the issue has not lost its pertinence, and in fact, at the beginning of the 21st century it only became more burning than it was in the 1960s; a mention of cloning, euthanasia and of the constant progress in the technologies of genetic modifications should be enough to prove it (I will return to these issues at the end of Part Three). For Lem, other illustrations of the problem included the prevalence of drugs and other addictive substances – which were no less a problem then than they are now – the introduction of the contraceptive pill and the generally increasing ease of life in the Western societies. He summed it ←56 | 57→up in the following pithy words: “The forceful implementation of ‘improvements’ can set off an ‘axiological implosion’ – i.e. a collapse of the system of values: it may lead to a situation in which living is very easy, but not really worth it” (371); and “The task of technology cannot be to constantly aim for a ‘short circuit’ of all the possible needs, desires or directives with their objects, because where one can obtain everything immediately, nothing has value, which derives from a certain hierarchy of goals and various degrees of difficulty in overcoming them” (373).
For Lem, the very notion of ethics is devoid of any transcendental connotations – he is coherently a rationalist in that regard. He states:
By ethics we shall mean a vaguely delineated set of rules of “the social game.” Some of these rules are certainly instrumental in character, and their occasional ethical aspect depends, among other things, on the whole set of rules, i.e. the entire culture. We believe that it is the situations of interpersonal contacts that have an ethical aspect. Determining which of these situations have an ethical aspect to them and how they can be judged in that regard is the clearest when we look at a given case from the perspective of a particular culture; the range of situations classified as ethical and the very criteria turn out to be variable (although not infinitely variable!), when looked at from various cultures. Judgments about interpersonal situations within a particular culture are especially divergent when they are made by observers positioned outside the given cultural environment, which implies an observer who grew up in a different culture. (379)
It implies that there are no universal values, but for Lem it also means that the emergence and development of ethical systems is independent from the biological foundations of the human species; otherwise there would have to be some ethical universals, because the biological diversity within the human population is too limited to justify the diversity in symbolic systems. Anthropological research has not yielded a discovery of a principle, value or norm that would be present in all human cultures. Thus, Lem rejects sociobiology avant la lettre, as Richard Dawkins and Edward O. Wilson had not even written their major works by then. So, again: neither naturalism nor culturalism. What is it then?
In the summary that concludes the text there is a following passage:
According to the hypothesis presented here, “the ethical” constitutes a component of how group behavior is controlled, with maximum probability of occurring in particular situations; this component – together with how group behavior is programmed as a whole – can be seen as a result of three sequential processes combining to instill these behaviors: accidental events (such as fluctuation of climate), Markov processes (which perpetuate effects of a random deviation from the initial state through positive feedback) and cumulative processes (e.g. techno-evolutionary processes). These processes produce a model of “human nature” characteristic of a particular culture, and they determine a corresponding system of norms and ethical judgments, which from ←57 | 58→the perspective of a participant of the culture is not merely a product of certain probabilistic references, but is endowed with a symbolic meaning. (419–420)
What would that mean? Above all it means that for Lem, ethics, or, more precisely, the emergence and development of ethical systems and norms for societies, constitute a stochastic process, a random and unpredictable one. This sentence of mine expresses in a colloquial language what the quoted excerpt stated with utmost precision. The notion of “Markov processes” plays a fundamental part in this essay and in Lem’s thought on culture in general, so it calls for a closer explanation. Markov processes or Markov chains82 are a type of stochastic process characterized by a principle that stage n of such a process depends only on the stage directly preceding it n – 1, and no other earlier stage. Systems that undergo Markov processes are hence systems that “forget the past,” in a sense that from the current stage and state of the system one cannot derive anything about its earlier stages, and vice versa: no later stage can be determined from it (with the exception of the one following it directly). In nature an example of a Markov process would be the motion of a particle suspended in a fluid called the Brownian motion. For an amateur such motion is completely random, but mathematicians have developed an elaborate formalism to describe it. Surprisingly, Markov processes can yield results that seem orderly to a human mind. A computer generating sequences of letters following the rule “to x add a letter which most often follows it in Polish,” will produce sequences of letters imitating words of the language, but prevalently meaningless.83 This is exactly a Markov process.
In Lem’s view the development of ethics in societies is such a process, and in fact the entire culture and history of the humankind can be interpreted in this manner. The Philosophy of Chance will largely be devoted to proving this claim. In Ethics of Technology…, he draws further conclusions from it about creating models of societies’ evolution, and this is what he is mostly interested in (social engineering again). He pays no attention to the philosophical consequences of this position, even though they are just as interesting and unprecedented in the Western philosophy. Following the spirit of the 20th century, Lem dispels ←58 | 59→any illusions we may have about an overarching meaning of our existence and actions; the absence of such meaning is obvious to him, which he makes it the implicit underlying premise of his argument. And it is not merely an unjustified statement of absurdity of existence that so many other philosophers made. The absurdity of our existence is not pure nonsense for Lem. The fate, which steers our existence, is not blind. Our randomness is not completely random – it is governed by mathematics.
Can it make us feel any better?84 It depends on one’s personal attitude. For many there will likely be no perceptible difference between randomness governed by the laws of stochastics and randomness that has no justification. Yet, for some, perhaps even many, an attempt to make our condition, in itself lacking external roots, a part of a mathematical formula, an attempt undertaken by Lem not only, and not even primarily in this essay, can be a sort of consolation, as Jerzy Jarzębski put it.85
For example, in Ethics of Technology…, there is a noticeable shift in Lem’s worldview since writing Dialogues. It is no longer an expression of joy of planning a perfect society, the cognitive optimism, which allowed him to manipulate the cybernetic terminology for the purpose of producing a new anthropology, is gone. Instead there is a careful skepticism, and his reflection on the links between the human world and the rest of the reality has become much sharper.
Lem did not take the stochastic model of culture and ethics out of thin air. It has been proven on a broad empirical basis,86 but, of course, it does not go beyond being a hypothesis, and one that is not easily subjected to verifying procedures. The two-part title becomes understandable only after the model has been outlined. While “ethics of technology” seems like an almost self-evident concept and it certainly was not foreign to people in the second half of the 20th century, as it is not at the beginning of the 21st century, “technology of ethics” ←59 | 60→becomes understandable only if we allow for a possibility of modeling the development of societies using mathematical tools. This is not something we know – it is a part of Lem’s vision of the future. We are aware that the technological progress is not concordant with the changes in ethical norms, which do not follow immediately. But we are still far away from these processes happening simultaneously, not to mention from modeling ethics a priori.
“Technology of ethics,” however, is not a naïve science fiction that would describe people who are completely dependent on psychotropic drugs or virtual projections (Lem offers a grotesque image of such a reality in The Futurological Congress). This is about something else: we are at the beginning of this writer’s next major narrative. He starts questioning the very distinction between the natural and the artificial here.87 I will discuss the details in Part Two of this book. Here I would only point out that within “technology of ethics” this distinction loses its meaning, because Lem considers the possibility of controlling societies’ ethical views not through any kind of repressions (be it political, ideological, physiological or symbolical), but on the basis of the stochastic model through which technologically advanced civilizations are capable of deciding about the fundamental parameters of their development to some extent; and this is exactly due to the stochastic nature of the process. Lem, however, is very clear about this potential being minimal and very restricted by various factors, among which neglecting individual human qualities of members of the given civilization is the least significant. He is not thinking about totalitarian Gleichschaltung here, but about reducing the number of parameters that need to be included in the model. Thus, he admits that the entire model is a mathematical construct rather than a sociological one, or, in fact just a preliminary attempt at producing such a construct, because no formalism has been proposed in the end.
The essay Biology and Values touches upon ethics from a slightly different angle, although still within the perimeters of the probability theory and close to cybernetics. It begins with a distinction between autonomous values, nonrelational values (treated as facts) and non-autonomous values, that is, instrumental, relative to something (treated as qualities) (426–427). In the first chapter, “Axiology and Physics,” he asks “when and how instrumental values are formed, where do they come from” (437), to which
one has to respond that the difference between presence and absence of axiology, just as the difference between a real goal and absence of a goal, can be conceived of with use of the same method that would allow us to understand a difference between a bald ←60 | 61→head and a head full of hair. When a stone falls due to gravity, we do not ask whether it made a decision about accelerating its speed during the fall. When a virus approaches a cell, we are in a sphere of classificatory instability … If we assume the virus does not make a decision in the axiological sense of the word … we fall into trouble with amoebas … etc. In fact the point is: if we can grasp the whole model of functioning of a given homeostat with the same precision with which we can grasp the working of, say, an electrical doorbell, then “decisions taken” will need to be replaced with causal relations, possibly involving a feedback loop, and the “goals of actions” will be replaced with probability chains, producing structures which in borderline cases (mouse, monkey, human) achieve a status of models of homeostat’s environment. “Values” turn out to be simply a kind of relations between physical states, relations that statistically determine the behavior of the given system. (437)
Here Lem is trying to explain the notion of instrumental value in terms of biological cybernetics, which has been very problematic for other philosophers. The “relations” he mentions are transfers of information between elements of a system in his view. The system and the “homeostat” are signs of this being another attempt to produce anthropological cybernetics. This time Lem is trying to use it to solve a classic problem of philosophical ethics.
What is next? When analyzing the links between physics and semantics (discussing the case of influence of symbolic meanings on human physiology in taboo), in passing Lem produces a thesis about the relationship between the emergence of language and the emergence of regularities in human behavior:
So, when random occurrences turn into a regularity, semantics emerge as invariable. Hence, clearly, the meaning of “taboo” cannot be found in a physical section of brains, just as no other meaning can, because we are speaking of something that has not existed as a physical phenomenon (as ergodics of language creation) since primeval times. In their dynamic stillness we can only observe late results of primeval causes … So the program of “physicalizing culture” will likely by utopian forever. If it were to become a reality, values would turn out to be “superfluous” entities, like Laplace’s demon (entia praeter necessitatem). (440–441)
After this strong statement Lem returns to the question of the genesis of instrumental values. He explains the homeostatic functioning of living organisms and then writes – and here comes the core of the argument – that “instrumental values” are qualities of objects of states that contribute to retaining the balance within homeostats (both in humans and other living creatures). The definition is based on the fact that all homeostats and only they can be defined as systems that have a goal (i.e., retaining balance in a changeable environment), and a presence of a goal is what Lem sees as the necessary condition of an instrumental value.
On the other hand, he interprets autonomous values as a special type of information that has a strong influence on the system; so strong that in extreme cases ←61 | 62→the system can disrupt or even destroy its homeostasis (as in a case of “dying for one’s faith”). Lem does not explain where the special information comes from or what exactly is its influence. The problem of links between physics and semantics comes up again. And the immediately occurring question of how to distinguish between a value-producing homeostat from one that does not necessitates an answer that: “the decision is determined by the cumulative conclusion from long periods of observation” (450). There is no general rule, a law of nature, that would determine the presence of either type of values for a particular homeostat, be it a human or a clam. Concluding, Lem points out certain logical difficulties deriving from a consideration of complex, multilevel homeostatic sets (451–454) and finishes by saying:
If active orientation on values ends up amounting to optimalization of ultra-stable states, the science will develop toward biology and physics meeting half-way: the former will dump the ballast of completely anachronic axiological terms that goes beyond the instrumental, and the latter will absorb the sphere of instrumental values in parts of its theory of anti-entropic systems, as an element of the general theory of physical systems. (454–455)
Lem is trying to combine anthropology, biology and cybernetics here, implying that the former will disappear when the latter two are merged. He is very close to pure naturalism here, but he is careful to avoid any open declaration that would reduce humans to a purely biological species. If he did so, his entire argument would become pointless, because the notion of ethical “value” would lose its meaning altogether. He is still in trouble here, because he is trying to bridge heterogeneous disciplines and discourses. He is in the shadow of cybernetics as a mathesis universalis.
The entire second chapter of Biology and Values, “Biology and Technology,” is a discussion of another such bridging attempt. It is devoted to a study of biological evolution in technological terms, with some axiometrics added for good measure. In short: does questions about the value of evolutionary solutions make sense, and hence can evolution be described as a construct? The problem remains unsolved though.
In the third chapter, “Intermittent and Continuous Evolution,” Lem discusses certain aspect of biological evolution as a Markov process and as a game (as in game theory) and compares them to technological evolution. Finally, in the fourth chapter, “Biology and Non-instrumental Values,” Lem considers whether biology can contain the notion of autonomous value, which is “a typically cultural phenomenon, very well known to anthropologists, for example, as scholars who practically devote all their efforts to trace and compare them” (482–483; ←62 | 63→Lem’s view on what cultural anthropology is was already a bit obsolete). He claims such values can be traced in these qualities of biological organisms that are not capable of survival and reproduction, that is, in “redundant” information, such as the plumage of some of the bird species. It could perform the same functions it has in a more modest version. However, there is caveat here: we do not actually know, and we will not any time soon, where exactly the threshold of “system’s information utility” lies. If it makes sense at all to speak of autonomous values in nature, they only be derivative to more fundamental phenomena (484–485). It is a clear contradiction that Lem does not even mention: by definition autonomous value cannot be derivative to anything. The question of consciousness through which and for which such value can be constituted is completely omitted here. If, however, for Lem this notion is completely independent from its original anthropological sense, he never provides a new definition. It is another example of contradictions that come from juxtaposing divergent vocabularies.
The last chapter of the essay, titled “Axiometrics of Progress” is another failed attempt, and Lem admits that in the very first paragraph: “The cumulative effect of how far evolution went from a single cell to a human seems obvious with this range as an expression of progress. But when we want to evaluate this huge improvement with some sort of axiological measurements, we encounter insurmountable obstacles” (486). The point is we can meaningfully show progress within certain evolutionary lines, groups, organs or physiological systems. However, the method fails us when applied to evolution as a whole.
“J. Huxley, for example, juxtaposes an eagle with a tapeworm, demanding that the reader realizes the amazing ‘progress,’ between the two forms. Who is to judge it critically? It is only our aesthetical criteria that lead us to believe that an eagle’s existence is beautiful and heroic, whereas a tapeworm’s is opportunistic and ugly” (491). The same applies to comparisons between people and insects for example. It is not about aesthetics though, but about adaptability and specialization. And what about culture, this very human product? Indeed, Lem would say, we have achieved more than any other species with it, but we have no guarantee whatsoever that these achievements will last. He expresses a view here that could almost be seen as a manifesto of culturalism:
The rules of cultural development are not bioevolutionary and therefore evolution cannot be a source of knowledge about cultural obligation – nor the other way round: cultural criteria cannot be applied to evolution. Consequently, the place where the evolutionary process extends beyond its natural monoselective (i.e. solely biological) stochastics, the “anthropogenetic locus of evolution,” cannot be located at the top of value ladder used by a biologist interested in axiometrics. This place serves purposes that cannot be measured on a biological scale. It is the very place where scale itself is ←63 | 64→being reevaluated: it is the moment when biology is being evaluated from the point of view of culture. (501–502)
For Lem “culture” is by essence different from “civilization” or “technology”, because he can see no way of describing it with the same language as the one he used in Dialogues to discuss the latter concepts together with “machine” and “nature”.
Why did Lem actually write that essay? He poses questions in it to which he has no answers, as he himself admits. He proposes theses that are based on contradictory premises, he is hesitating between a naturalist and culturalist anthropology, and at times he seems to question the point of anthropology all together. What is the purpose of it all?
I believe his intention can be described as follows. Evolutionary biology has been entangled in a prevailing contradiction from the very beginning of its existence, ever since On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or even earlier, starting with Buffon and Lamarck. Evolution understood the way Darwin suggested is a nondirectional process, nontheological and governed by impersonal laws. Living creatures are subject to such evolution, and especially we, humans, are. Evolutionary biology as a science should follow its own basic premises and describe evolutionary processes without judgment. Moreover, it is not supposed to (or the scholars in evolutionary biology, to be more precise and avoid the hypostasis, are not supposed to) describe the evolutionary process as a process in the common understanding of the term, as a sequence of events, with a beginning and an end, and consequently with its causes, values and goals. This is how evolutionary biology ought to be studied. This is how its texts ought to be written. In reality, however, this was never so. Up until our times the greatest biologists who wrote synthetic and popular accounts of their field, have not been able to refrain from a teleological narrative, presenting evolution as a sensible, directed process, the aim of which (and let us not even mention causes here) is us, of course. Using the terms of literary analysis (and I will not be the only one to do so), one can say that the narrative and rhetoric of evolutionary biology have always contradicted the discipline’s basic premises. It is hardly surprising though; it not only shows the unwavering vanity of the “crown jewel of creation” – it also proves Roland Barthes’ remark that “human is a story-telling creature.” Darwin’s revolution produced a general model of biological reality, but in practice it turned out to be impossible to follow its premises, and an evolutionary biologist cannot help but tell the story of the discipline, just as a historian does. Except that in biology this rule has bigger impact on the results of research. A historian studies the human world and by presenting sequences of events in ←64 | 65→various configurations, he or she makes sense of the historical process, but telling it does not contradict the very premises of the discipline, as is the case for a biologist who theoretically cannot tell the story of evolution and judge it. But how else can it be described, especially from the bird’s-eye view?
No need to add that these remarks apply only to a limited number of authors, both in biology and history. But they do apply to those among them who had the greatest impact on the shape of both fields. Biologists themselves have noticed the problematic character of the discourse of evolutionary biology a long time ago, and ever since the 1960s the discipline is striving to avoid value judgments, as does history. I would claim that Lem’s essay Biology and Values was his attempt to deal with those contradictions. Having recourse, once again, to cybernetics and systems theory, Lem tried to combine three disciplines here: biology, cybernetics and anthropology (its axiological variety), expecting to succeed in eliminating the problem of value judgments about facts of evolution by reducing the very notion of value, via cybernetics, to a category of evolutionary biology. However, he must have realized success is impossible in this case – and perhaps hence the culturalist tinge in the conclusion. Lem’s failure may (again perhaps) be partially caused by the fact he did not draw a clear enough line between the discourse of biology, with its narrative and rhetoric, and its object: the reality itself. If such suggestion is true, it could be explained by his fascination with Turing’s vision of unified physics and logic: such a vision, applied more broadly, makes the very notion of scientific discourse pointless. Logics becomes incarnate in computers, and similarly biological theories could be identified with a practice of programmed evolution, in which case the very distinction between theory and practice, the artificial and the natural would be dismantled. Lem was deeply fascinated by such a possibility, as will be seen when I analyze Summa Technologiae. In Biology and Value this fascination might have turned against him.88
Both essays from the second annex to Dialogues went completely unnoticed. Philosophers of ethics were not interested, understandably, because Lem’s ←65 | 66→arguments have nothing to do with the 20th-century philosophical ethics. They had no influence of its further development either.89
Dialogues with the annexes are both a complex and heterogeneous structure. The leitmotif is the conviction that cybernetics can be a cure to the ailments of science, and also, something Lem does not say explicitly anywhere, that cybernetics will help build a holistic anthropology that would combine computer science, sociology and genetics. Even then, however, at the early stage of his philosophical development, Lem was too subtle a thinker to believe his own vision without reservations. If Dialogues can be of any interest today, it is because they carry the whole history of a certain illusion – from feisty parades, through harsh combat to capitulation.
As I have mentioned a few times before, Dialogues are the first stage in the development of Lem’s philosophical thought. The second stage is Summa Technologiae. Part Two of my book is devoted to this work.
72Tako rzecze … Lem, 85.
73The last two dialogues could also be seen as a “metautopia” – a way of considering “the conditions of possibility of all future societies, which could be scientifically (i.e., cyberneticially) organized.”
74A more malicious critic could write that Dialogues really contain anything the author was interested in at the time. Indeed, Dialogues could be described as somewhat incoherent in structure and excessively complicated in arguments presented, but the qualities do not really occur frequently enough to disqualify the work as a whole.
75Which I would not want to describe as “spiritual,” “transcendent” or in any other way at this point. The theme of Lem’s anthropology and its place between naturalism and culturalism will be a recurrent one in later parts of this work.
76I am thinking here of German philosophical anthropology for example (Scheler, Plessner, Gehlen). On the other hand I am not discussing here the science par excellence, that is physical anthropology, and the positivist versions of cultural anthropology.
77Among other issues it includes the sentence: “But if as a result of gradual merging of computing machines and memory banks there emerge national, continental, and later even planetary computer network, which is a realistic direction of development, the whole system, constituted by humans and these networks, may take up a dynamic trajectory, quite divergent from the civilizational hopes” (321). This is the earliest harbinger of the Internet that can be found in Lem’s writings.
78Cf. Małgorzata Szpakowska, Dyskusje…, 166–167. Szpakowska points out that a society relying on a network of informal relations following the principle of do ut des was satirized by Lem in his short story Profesor A. Dońda, never translated into English.
79Metaphors like that can already be found in the main body of Dialogues. Philonous speaks of “a crisis which is analogous to ‘a short circuit’ in a neuronal network – an epileptic attack,” to which Hylas exclaims: “Oh, then crises are the epilepsy of capitalism?”; to which Philonous responds: “With a grain of salt, one could say that” (187). The metaphor is given by Hylas, who is naïve, so it is not necessarily to be treated seriously.
80Reprinted in amended version in Teksty Drugie, no. 2 (1990), and in the collection Mój pogląd na literaturę…, 193–214.
81Tako rzecze Lem…, 84.
82Andrey (Andrei) Andreyevich Markov (1856–1922) was a Russian mathematician and one of the authors of the probability theory; he was a professor at a university in Petersburg and a member of the Petersburg Academy of Science. His research on processes that were later named after him started from a study of sequences of letters in Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin.
83Similar processes are in play in The Cyberiad, in the short story The First Sally (A), or Trurl’s Electronic Bard, where the Electronic Bard – a poetry producing machine – recites a poem during its trial run, which starts from: “Pev’t o’ tay merlong gumin gots…”
84Lem would never ask this question. He would likely say that the purpose of thinking is not to make us feel better. Nevertheless I want to point to this trace of existentialist interpretation, at least tentatively, as many such themes of coping with absurdity come up in his novels, including Solaris and The Magellan Nebula.
85Cf. Jarzębski, Kosmogonia i konsolacja, in: Wszechświat Lema…, 68–102. The term “consolation” here, drawn from classical rhetorics, is justified by the assonance between it and the word “cosmogony” in the title of the essay [“Cosmogony and consolation”], but it probably also points to the fact that, perhaps against the author’s will, Lem’s whole argument is somehow elitist.
86Cf. Dialogi, 383 and following. The issue is taken up more thoroughly in The Philosophy of Chance and Science Fiction and Futurology.
87Cf. Jarzębski, Wszechświat Lema…, 97 and following.
88In his philosophy of science Lem pays little attention to scientific discourses, paradigms or the entire problematic of the impact of the language of science on its content and methodology. When he was writing his main works such issues were not being discussed. However, it is tempting to say that had Lem become interested in these issues when they became popular, he could have given more precise answers to many of his own questions.
89In an interview Lem admitted: “I never read anything on ethics, I know nothing about it.” (Zbigniew Taranienko, “O biosferyczny parlament świata. Rozmowa ze Stanisławem Lemem,” Argumenty, 1970, 38.) Assuming we believe this statement to be true, there would be a mutual lack of interest between Lem and philosophical ethics. ←66 | 67→