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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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13 Metatheory


Of course, I belong to the Enlightenment and I am a rationalist, albeit a little desperate. A desperate rationalist can turn out to be closely related to a fool.

Letter to Michael Kandel, July 1, 1972

The fifth chapter of ST, “Prolegomena to Omnipotence,” serves as a metatheory for the entire work. It is located midway through the book and it divides it into two symmetrical parts. The first one is about issues of autoevolution unrelated to biology (the hypothetical reference to extraterrestrial civilization and intelectronics, that is, the capacity to build intelligent machines without organic components) – and this is the part that has been discussed here already. The other part of ST is devoted to those aspects of autoevolution that are directly connected with biology and Nature. Those include phantomology, information farming and autoevolution in a strict sense, that is, reconstruction of the human species. Before Lem discusses them though, he first outlines a sort of classification of autoevolution and tries to impose a conceptual order on his own reflections on the subject, which is necessary given how different his thought is from what was accepted earlier, as I have emphasized on many occasions.

At the beginning Lem writes:

It is only when we are eventually able to compete with Nature on the level of creation, when we have learned to copy it so that we can discover all of its limitations as a Designer, that we shall enter the realm of freedom, of being able to work out a creative strategy subordinated to our goals. … we can turn Nature’s infinity against it, so to speak, by working, as Technologists, on uncountable sets … We can remove the difference between “the artificial” and “the natural” – which will happen once the “artificial” first becomes indistinguishable from the natural and then exceeds it. We shall discuss later on how this is going to happen. But how should we understand this moment of “exceeding” the natural? It stands for carrying out with Nature’s help what it cannot do itself. (156)

Soon after he defines the notion of “Machine.” I will quote an extensive passage here, as it is one of the most important ones in ST and Lem’s way of thinking about technology cannot be fully understood without it.

OK, then, someone will say, all these lofty phrases were just intended to elevate human artifacts, all those various machines that Nature does not create. ←111 | 112→

Everything depends on what we understand by a “machine.” It can, of course, refer just to what we have learned to construct so far. Yet if by “machine” we understand something that displays regularity, the situation will change. From such a broad perspective, it is not important anymore whether a “machine” has been constructed from existing matter, from those one hundred elements discovered by physics, or from air showers, or even from gravitational fields. It is also not important whether and how a “machine” uses, or even “creates” energy. It would, of course, be possible to construct a system consisting of intelligent beings and their environment in which our laws of thermodynamics would not apply. Someone will respond that this system would be “artificial” and that we would secretly have to provide it with energy from outside, in a way that would be unnoticeable to its inhabitants. Yet we do not know whether the Metagalaxy does not have any external energy sources that would be “connected” to this system from outside. Maybe it does; maybe its eternal supply of energy results from the infinity of the Universe. If that was the case, would this mean that the Metagalaxy was “artificial”? As we can see, everything depends on the scale of phenomena under discussion. A machine is thus a system that manifests some kind of regularity of behavior: statistical, probabilistic, or deterministic. From this point of view an atom, an apple tree, a star system, or a supernatural world is a machine. Everything we construct, and that behaves in a certain way, is a machine: everything that has inner states and outer states, while the relations between sets of those states are subject to certain laws. (156–157)

This is how Lem neutralizes the significance of distinguishing between the Natural and the Artificial. “Artificiality” for him does not imply intentionality of creation, and “naturality” – a lack of such intentionality (this is roughly how the difference between the two notions could be described in their regular sense). It is not about that; it is about regularity in functioning. The thesis is: Designer can create every system (be it a computer, a tree, a cyborg or a galaxy – the technical capacity is of no bearing here) under the sole condition, that the structure and functioning of the system can be described with precision. The criterion is purely pragmatic then, but very different from the earlier one. Even something previously considered natural can in fact be an “artificial” product. The fact that we still distinguish between these two categories is merely a matter of how backward we are technologically. We make “artificial flowers” from the artificial material – plastic.153 Once we learn to produce them from the same material that real flowers are made of, the distinction will no longer be applicable. When ←112 | 113→everything can be “artificial” in that sense, nothing is either artificial or natural, because a product of Nature is indistinguishable from something produced by Designer. Moreover, the broadening of human knowledge from the planet Earth to the Universe, which took place in the scope of the last hundred years, again deprives the opposition of Natural and Artificial of its meaning. It used to be possible to claim that the Amazon Jungle is natural, and the office of a dean at All Souls College – artificial. But a question of whether a star cluster is natural or artificial is just badly put.154

Lem is certain those changes will happen; we just do not know when that will be. Speaking of “imitology” – this is the general term Lem coins for the problematic – he does not touch upon the question of “when.”155

The condition of predictability of designed system is crucial for Lem, as he remains faithful to cybernetics and science in general, even this late in his intellectual journey. And it is not a symptom of some archaic scientism. The position that a Designer cannot build objects that could not be theoretically described stems from the assumption that any reality, not only the one we inhabit now, but also all the ones we could create ourselves, needs to have a set of laws that describe it. Otherwise we would not only be stepping into the realm of pure fantasy, where despite appearances Lem does not like being, but we would also be stepping beyond the realm of our cognition as a reality without laws of physics governing it is impossible to imagine for us, and impossible to figure out through abstract reasoning, and therefore we can say nothing meaningful about it, even though we can formulate any preposition about it (e.g., “kangaroos are made of exhausted cottage cheese”). This is not the type of writing Lem is interested in ST.

The statement about “regularity” as the essential feature of Machine is another element of an implicit “critique of the body” – Lem clearly suggests that human body is an irregular structure, subject to numerous aberrations in functioning and to many errors, one that cannot be described precisely and, hence, controlled. It is then another reason to reject it.

This is roughly Lem’s main metatheoretical position. One could ask now whether there is place for man at all within this model – after all, so far we have ←113 | 114→not been able to describe ourselves with regular theories and to most of us it is highly doubtful that we ever will. But Lem does not ask that question and the very notion of autoevolution leads eventually, I believe, to making such a task impossible.

In the chapter “Chaos and Order” another very important question is posed though: does any of the models of reality devised by men describe it with absolute precision? This is one of the most fundamental questions for philosophy of science and it is usually answered in a negative – a theoretical model is never identical with the phenomena it describes, it exists in the realm of mediated symbols determined by the historically formed cultural communication – so it cannot render it with complete precision. Of course, in the contemporary science these questions become very complex, especially when the reality is only accessible through a mathematical model describing it or through very indirect observations (as is the case in particle physics and cosmology). Lem solves the problem in the most radical way imaginable:

What are we left with then? With considering the phenomenon itself its most perfect representation, and with replacing analytical with creative activity. In other words – with imitological practice. (164)

As the only perfect model of any phenomenon is the phenomenon itself, Lem in fact identifies theory with practice. The strategy he offers is both, as we shall see later when discussing information farming and autoevolution. Thus, Lem rejects another dogma of our thinking, separating scientific theory from engineering, or more generally, Science from Technology.

If we now ask how the Designer knows what he is to create if the theoretical model is identical with the practical object being designed, Lem responds:

I have said that restraint on the level of design will serve as a compass in our navigation between the abyss of knowledge and the chasm of stupidity. Such restraint stands for belief in the possibility of acting effectively and in the need to give up on certain things. It means first of all giving up on asking “definitive” questions. This is not a silence of someone pretending to be deaf but rather active silence. We know far more about the fact that it is possible to act than about how it happens. The designer is not a narrow pragmatist, like a builder who is constructing his house from bricks, uninterested in where these bricks came from and what they are, as long as the house gets built. The designer knows everything about his bricks – except for what they look like when no one is looking at them. (168)

It is a bit of an evasion, which stems from our uncertainty about the nature of the world. No one knows if the world we inhabit is fully cognizable, not only for us, which I have discussed earlier, but also “in general.” It is primarily a matter ←114 | 115→of whether it can be described mathematically, whether every level and aspect of reality can be modeled mathematically. Lem and other authors writing on the subject are careful to not mention the problematic status of the humanities. The question can be reversed too: Does every mathematical theory describe some physical entity? Some scholars, such as James Jeans and Arthur Stanley Eddington would answer in affirmative, but today, even though many mathematical theories that used to be seen as absolutely “pure” found practical use, such view is generally described as “mathematical mysticism,” as there is no logical or scientific evidence for it – and this is where we return to the starting point. Lem offers an excellent metaphor here, which presents mathematician as

a mad tailor who makes all sorts of clothes. He does not know anything about people, birds, or plants. He is not interested in the world; he does not examine it. He makes clothes but does not know for whom. He does not think about it … He takes the finished clothes to a massive warehouse. If we could enter it, we would discover that some of the clothes fit an octopus, others fit trees, butterflies, or people. We would find clothes for a centaur and a unicorn as well as for creatures that have not even been imagined yet. (171–172)

All these metatheoretical reasonings have an implicit meaning. Lem’s Designer has the utmost degree of liberty. He is not limited by culture, politics, society, and history, not even by biology. He is only limited by the laws of physics – hence the title of the chapter: “Prolegomena to Omnipotence.” The Designer’s main problem is the eternal question of “what to do?” which here carries the broadest possible meaning, as the Designer can do nearly anything. Lem is trying to outline a code, a set of rules, or a method. At the same time he himself, as the author of ST, enjoys a virtually unlimited theoretical field, which is, however, determined by the fairly strict perimeter of the laws of physics and his own assumptions, especially regarding the (un)knowability of the world. He at least sees himself as unrestricted by the constraints of the past, of culture and society, but somehow obliged to correspond with them, as he is writing for his contemporaries, and not for those about whom he is writing. His task is extremely difficult, which is where the complexity of the thought in ST comes from, especially in this particular chapter.

The section titled modestly “A New Linnaeus: About Systematics”156 presents a set of notions that Lem uses referring to the main directions of development ←115 | 116→for future technology, which will grow from combining scientific theory, technology and bio- and technoevolution. Lem emphasizes many times that the terms describe something that does not exist yet, and will not for a long time, so they have to be somewhat vague. He writes:

“Pantocreatics” refers to everything man or another intelligent being can achieve. It refers to gathering information and using it with a particular goal in mind. Such separation also exists today to some extent; it can be seen in the differentiation between science and technology. In the future, the situation will change in that information gathering will have become automated … The part of pantocreatics that deals with information use, and that has emerged from the combination of the general theory of physical and mathematical systems, can be divided into two fields. For the sake of brevity, and also to provide a kind of overview, we shall call the first of these Imitology and the second Phantomology. They overlap with each other to some extent. We could, of course, try to be more precise and say, for example, that imitology is a design theory based on the mathematics and algorithms that can be identified in Nature, while phantomology stands for actualizing in the real world mathematical structures that have no equivalent in Nature. Yet this would already mean assuming that Nature basically has a mathematical character – while we do not want to make such an assumption. This would also involve accepting algorithmic universalism – which is highly dubious in itself. It is therefore more sensible to leave our definitions partially open. (178)

The metaphorical style – difficult to avoid when writing about omnipotence – makes it hard to get a general understanding of the project. Lem constantly oscillates between Nature and Design, obliterating the borders between the two notions. Since he cannot produce precise descriptions of “pantocreatic technologies,” he finds recourse in an almost poetic strategy – he purposefully dissolves the semantics of his own discourse.

Lem’s view on the difference between imitology and phantomology is also significant here:

Imitology is an earlier stage of pantocreatics. It is derived from the modeling of real phenomena in scientific theories, digital machines, and so on, which is already practiced today. Imitology involves launching probable material processes (a star, a volcanic explosion) as well as improbable ones (a microfusion cell, a civilization). A perfect imitologist is someone who is capable of repeating any natural phenomenon, or a phenomenon whose emergence is enabled by Nature, even though it itself has not been created spontaneously by Nature … There is no sharp boundary between imitology and phantomology. As a later, more advanced phase of imitology, phantomology involves constructing ever less likely processes, all the way to entirely impossible ones, that is, processes than cannot take place under any circumstances, because they contradict the laws of Nature. It seems to be an empty class because the unrealizable cannot be realized. We shall attempt to demonstrate, albeit only briefly and rather crudely, that such an “impossibility” does not have to be absolute. (178–179) ←116 | 117→

We can see that, again, phenomenon becomes identical with its model. And again, this identity happens in both types of scholastic suppositions, de re and de dicto. Lem employs a rhetorical device whereby he manipulates notions as if he were doing so on these notions’ referents. There is a reason why Lem constantly uses the hypostases of Science, Technology, Nature and a few other entities. It would be unacceptable in a strictly academic text and they are usually the cause of some grotesque misunderstandings in postmodern texts. They are, however, necessary and justified in Lem’s writings – how else could he speak of these issues, so removed from any past or present reality?

Lem’s main aim is to show that Designer-Pantocreatic and Nature can be the same. To make such a possibility seem more likely, he quotes examples from genetic engineering, which were completely fantastic in 1964, but which are quite practical in 2017,157 and he interprets that as a seamless transition from “plagiarism” from Nature to “creation.” He writes:

As we can see, our actions blur the boundary between what is “natural” and what is “artificial.” Modeling thus allows us to cross the boundary between plagiarism and creation because our comprehensive knowledge of the genetic code obviously allows us to introduce all kinds of changes into it … Evidently, we do not need to be familiar with the entire evolutionary road that Nature has traveled to construct a human being. We do not need millions of bits of information about particular stages of development, about Sinanthropus, about Mustier or Aurignacian civilizations. On having produced a “model” of a sperm or an egg that “matches” the original, we will have obtained a genotype that is more perfect than all the originals (owing to the accumulation of valuable genetic traits) – thanks to which we will have opened a “side entrance” into the process of creating human organisms for ourselves. (185)

This is the essence of imitology: it is about repeating the best achievements of Nature without repeating the whole blind process that led Nature to such results. This, I believe, makes the sense of the model becoming the same as the modeled phenomenon clearer. Imitology is to be an “extension” of Nature steered by Reason – without the sharp cut that separated Science from Technology in modern science. ←117 | 118→

In the passage quoted above there emerges also a theme that will return later – albeit implicitly – in a discussion about reconstruction of species in the last chapter of ST. In order to reconstruct human organism the Designer does not need the history of the development of our species. And similarly, he will not need the history of its culture in order to reshape it. I will discuss this conclusion, as sad as it might be for humanists, later.

To provide even stronger arguments in favor of his metatheoretical theses about the possibility of “pantocreatic modeling” of reality, Lem offers another fascinating metaphor:

Yet maybe it is only today that we need theories and models of phenomena? Maybe, on being asked such a question, a wise man from another planet would silently hand out a piece of an old shoe sole picked up from the ground to us, communicating in this way that the whole truth of the Universe can be read from this piece of matter? … Does Matter by any chance not have all of its potential transformations “inscribed” in it … Then, taking the basic building block of Nature, the hydrogen atom, we could “deduce” all those possibilities from it (modestly starting from the possibility of constructing systems that are a trillion times more spiritual than man). We could also deduce all that is unrealizable from it (sweet kitchen salt NaCl, stars whose diameter equals a quadrillion of miles, etc.). From this perspective, matter already entails as its foundational assumptions all those possibilities as well as impossibilities (or prohibitions); we are just unable to crack its “code.” … What we have just said is nothing else than tautological ontology … (182–183)

If it were indeed possible to deduce a description of the entire universe from an old shoe sole (the idea is somewhat like Zen kōans reflecting the most profound sense of the world in striking absurdities), the problem of setting rules of pantocreatics, as well as the problem of correspondence between a model and a phenomenon, between a word and a thing, between a notion and an object, would cease to exist. The matter itself – unmediated by any kind of conceptual arguments – would imply nearly infinite possibilities of shaping it. It is now clear that most of the difficulties in creating pantocreatics ensue from the problem of representation that troubles the entire Western thought. Lem is no pioneer in such approach. This passage of ST puts him in a long line of thinkers dreaming of discovering a Grand Principle in the reality itself, outside any conceptual systems. “Tautological ontology” is nothing else as Leibniz’s mathesis universalis. Leibniz wanted to create a language in which words–things would encompass all features of the objects they refer to. Lem wants objects themselves to determine their own features and relations – so the Designer would not have to use any words, any notions. Any humanists, trapped under the burden of forty centuries of interpretation would applaud such a dream of a thoughtless pinnacle of wisdom.

153That is from polymers that do not occur in living organisms. But the proteins we are largely made of are a type of polymers too, albeit with an incredibly complex structure. It means that on the level of molecular engineering we are dealing with the same class of substances, but the simple polymers are to proteins what a barrow is to a limousine – also when it comes to how difficult they are to build.

154The Natural/Artificial opposition in ST is not identical with the opposition Nature/Culture, and hence the difficulty in applying all these notions. As long as we stay on the planet Earth, “Artificial” is more or less the same as “Culture,” but in the lengthy passage I have quoted above Lem definitely goes beyond such limits.

155Which, we should point out, makes him a utopist. I will discuss the utopian character of ST in the next part of this book.

156Lem’s lofty diction in ST would itself merit some interest. Perhaps it is not so much a product of author’s (lack of) modesty, as of irony, which he then lost in the 1980s at the latest, when he also lost his anthropological optimism.

157The contradiction with the preceding sentence is an illusion. The fact that some of Lem’s project became real does not mean that we have got closer to “pantocreatics” or “autoevolution.” We are still just as distant from reaching the point of identity between Technology and Nature as we were half a century ago. In light of the strategic plans laid out in ST our achievements are but early attempts. See more on this in Chapter 27 of this book. ←118 | 119→