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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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15 On How to Farm Information

15On How to Farm Information

Of course, I am always right, how exhausting!

Letter to Michael Kandel, [month unknown] 22, 1974

The penultimate chapter of ST is titled “The Creation of Worlds.” It contains an outline of a radical transformation of external reality of human life – but still only the external one. It is the penultimate stage of autoevolution.

To totally restructure reality, a total method is needed. In this chapter Lem seems to be taking a step back from his thesis about theory and practice being the same, which he stated in the fifth chapter, and returns to modeling a scientific theory. He is clearly irritated by the fact that science develops randomly and chaotically, not only because it is belittling to his vision of man, but also because it limits the Designer’s “omnipotence.” In short, there is a need for an “applied metascience”:

Human civilization is like a ship that has been built without any design plans. The construction process was extremely successful … Yet this ship is still rudderless. Civilization lacks knowledge that would allow it to choose a path knowingly from the many possible ones, instead of drifting in random tides of discoveries … Science is playing a game with Nature, and even though it wins every time, it allows itself to be drawn into the consequences of this victory and exploit it, as a result of which, instead of developing a strategy, it ends up just practicing tactics … We have to learn how to regulate scientific progress too; otherwise the random character of any future developments will only increase. (235)

Had Lem had a chance to read Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, published two years before ST, he would have likely agreed with his analysis of progress in science. But Kuhn only described the world of science – Lem wanted to change it.169

The change would amount to so much as transforming the process of science’s evolution from a chaotic one into a strictly determined process. Just as pantocreatics is meant to be a “rational” replica of Nature, and autoevolution a rational replica of bioevolution, “information farming” is to give as full control ←131 | 132→over the increase of knowledge through science. And all this so that civilization gains “the freedom of strategic maneuvering to be able to control its path” (236).

What is information farming? In ST we read:

We are supposed to go all the way toward automatizing Science. This is a terrifying task … We are to invent a device that will gather information, generalize it in the same way the scientist does, and present the results of this inquiry to experts … Our device thus produces theories. (242)

Information farming is then something like a programmed metascience. On the following pages Lem discusses philosophy of science and links between information processing and biology (in human brain). This discussion remains unrelated to any “official” currents in philosophy of science and they do not include anything that would not have been said in the preceding chapter already. Generally, in his version of philosophy of science, Lem leans toward a conventionalist orientation. The main part of the chapter is devoted to the technology of information farming. The description includes elements of cybernetics, theory of information, biochemistry, embryology and genetics. The main idea is:

Could we not take up “information farming,” cross-breed bits of information with one another, and initiate their “growth” so that we eventually obtain a “mature organism” in the form of scientific theory? (251)

The procedure would as it were repeat the development of living organisms. Every complex living organism grows out of a very simple nucleus, for example, a spermatozoid and an egg cell. The transition from this simple stage to the phenomenally complex grown-up organisms is an object of amazement and fascination (and studies) for many scholars – and of Lem. He remarks that the process of ontogenesis, which enables such a vast multiplication of information in an organism, must be subjected to a set of some very precise laws. But if that is the case, then we could, Lem says, design a quasi-biological system, whose initial structure would have some scientific information built in, and a set of instructions of development. The system would then fulfill those instructions, just as a human embryo and fetus do, resulting in a “mature organism – scientific theory.”

This idea from Lem may seem completely fantastic. I will try, however, to treat it as a serious idea, with its own place in the project of autoevolution. The idea of inscribing information inside the molecular structure of matter, or even on a yet lower level, has particular intellectual bearing. We can immediately notice that it eliminates the problem of representation mentioned before. ←132 | 133→The questions of adequacy of linguistic signs and the objects they describe simply disappear when the language of theory becomes a tool of practice – just as performatives work in magic. Lem believes here that the language of scientific theory could operationally be the same as genetic code. To prove it, he produces lengthy arguments about the essence of natural languages (section titled “Linguistic engineering,” 267–282). Lem’s philosophy of language is, so to say, just as “private” as his philosophy of science, that is, it has just as little connection with any known philosophical currents, and it is just as deeply permeated with imagery derived from biology. In short, his theses can be summarized as follows: the meaning of a genetic code is its performativity in the process of ontogenesis (so, eventually, a mature organism), and the veracity or falsity of its “statements” is determined by natural selection. It is assumed that the same model can be applied to the relationship between the language of theory and molecular structures, which makes “information farming” possible in a sense that the evolving system will eventually result in complexity of information that will exceed the initial set – as is the case in ontogenesis. Similar parallels between natural language and genetic code are drawn in a book Das Spiel - Naturgesetze steuern den Zufall by Mandfred Eigen and Ruthild Winkler, which was published a decade after ST (Polish edition released in 1983).

I mentioned that Lem “seemingly” withdrew from the idea to identify theory with practice. The problem lies in a sort of conceptual split, which Lem apparently does not notice. “Information farming” is indeed an example of such identification, as logical and intellectual operations are replaced here with physical and chemical processes. However, – and that is the key problem – the processes result in another theory, albeit expressed not through a set of formulae and theorems, but rather as lumps of matter of complex molecular structure from which a theory can be deciphered. It is then a sort of intermediate stage between “pure theory” and “pure practice.” The author’s aim, as he emphasizes, is “automatizing Science,” thanks to which the Designer will know “what to do.” But “information farming” is not itself a construction, it is only a building instruction. Its advantage is that it eliminates the chaotic heuristics from the scientific process. However, the price is that even though theory becomes practice, the practice remains a theory. Lem, too, cannot see this contradiction or he glides over it on purpose.

We should remember that for Lem the project of “information farming” is merely a remedy to “megabyte bomb” and the chaotic increase in knowledge, so ←133 | 134→it is only an intermediary step toward autoevolution, and not an element constituting autoevolution. As we can clearly see now, ST mostly consists of such “introductions,” and this is why it has to be very generic about the questions of the impact of technology on human life. Only the last chapter will show that technology is to change it through and through, all the way to its biological foundations.

Could these ideas from Lem be fulfilled in any way? The idea of coding linguistic meanings in material systems is of course fulfilled by every computer, in its integrated circuits or chips, memory and logic gates. But Lem’s project is much more advanced. Computers based on von Neumann’s classic architectural design operate only in a binary system, and all data they process have to be expressed in the binary code. Lem has something very different in mind: expressing a language of scientific theory in a representation of biological molecular structures, the way genetic code is represented in DNA sequences. Contemporary technologies are slowly getting closer to such options, or similar ones. I am speaking of quantum computers and biocomputers here.

In the late 1970s Richard Feynman was the first to put forward the idea of bringing mathematical processes to the lowest, quantum level of matter. He has been building such systems since the 1990s. In quantum computers information is inscribed and processed not as bits but quantum bits, that is, quantum states of individual atoms and their superpositions. It increases the computing power by many orders of magnitude and it is a tremendous qualitative change in comparison to digital computers. If quantum computers were popularized, it would probably get us closer to the idea of “information farming,” although it seems unlikely that even those machines would be able to add new data to their databases on their own. Biocomputers are much closer to Lem’s ideas, that is, machines that combine mechanical systems with living matter. Future research on these systems and a technology of inscribing data expressed in human natural languages into DNA sequences (DNA digital data storage) will allow us to see to what extent it is a fulfillment of the idea of information farming.

Apart from these technologies, there are also theories describing reality in a way that make “information farming” possible. These are self-organizing systems theories, which have been developed since the 1960s by Humberto Maturana, Francisco Varela and Niklas Luhmann – I have mentioned them in Part One as the late (and somewhat alienated) offspring of cybernetics. These theories often employ the notion of “autopoiesis,” which means the ability of complex systems (organic or inorganic) to transform their own structure and qualities. Such theories have a lot in common with emergentism, a view that a system as a whole has qualities that cannot be reduced to the sum of its parts and relations ←134 | 135→between them. This position has been mostly shaped in opposition to contemporary reductionism in natural sciences. All these currents resemble the premises of Lem’s project of “information farming” to some degree.170

And what is the relationship between “information farming” and “the creation of worlds”? It seems that in this case it is quite simple. Again, Lem seamlessly oscillates between his “theory” and “practice.” The project of automatized science is a “user manual” for the Designer, a set of practical tips. It was discussed in “Prolegomena to Omnipotence” as well, but there it was about something else: Lem focused on a set of general rules for the Designer to follow, something like a “constitution,” setting the terms of “omnipotence.”

The two final sections of “The Creation of Worlds” are “The Engineering of Transcendence” and “Cosmogonic Engineering.” Lem reaches the limits of his own technological imagination here. The connection of these passages of ST with the rest of the book seems rather feeble, even though the author claims they are a description of “another possibility of taming the information deluge” (282). This is not so much about the “megabyte bomb” though, as it is about the human yearning for faith, for irrational metaphysics – which Lem sometimes notices, but does not approve (we have already seen, what he is capable of saying about religion) and tries to frame the issue in terms of technology. So it is like mixing fire with ice.

The way he does it is impressive. He begins by pointing out the futility of consumerism:

It is often said that the separation of the present reality from transcendence, so commonplace today, is pernicious in that it underlines the universe of fixed values. Because life on Earth is the only thing that exists, because it is only in this life that we can seek fulfillment, the only kind of happiness that can be offered to us is purely carnal. Heavens have not revealed anything to us; there are no signs that would indicate the need to devote ourselves to some higher, nonmaterial goals. We furnish our lives ever more comfortably; … we invent more and more ephemeral trends, dances, one-season stars; … Entertainment derived from a nineteenth-century funfair is today becoming ←135 | 136→an industry underpinned by an ever more perfect technology … At the same time, a feeling of emptiness, superficiality, and sham sets in, one that is particularly dominant in civilizations that have left the majority of primitive troubles, such as hunger and poverty, behind them. Surrounded by underwater-lit swimming pools and chrome and plastic surfaces, we are suddenly struck by the thought that the last remaining beggar, having accepted his fate willingly, thus turning it into an ascetic act, was incomparably richer than man is today, with his mind fed TV nonsense … The beggar believed in eternal happiness … looking as he did into the vast transcendence ahead of him. Free time is now becoming … actually a vacuum, because dreams can be divided into those that can be realized immediately … and those that cannot be realized by any means. Our own body, with its youth, is the last remaining god on the ever emptying altars; … yet even those wonders of civilization turn out to be of no use. Nothing shows him what to do, what to aim for, what to dream about, what hope to have. (283–284)

It might be hard to believe this was written in Gomułka’s Poland. The passage sounds more like a text by an American conservative commentator such as Allan Bloom, and written in the 1990s, or it could be a blurb for one of Houellebecq’s novels. Again, it shows how perceptive Lem was about the role of technology in human life (which was increasing at a much lower pace then than it is now). In the last years of his life, he would also make similar statements, but in a much grumpier tone. This passage is actually quite unique in ST, because, as I have mentioned, Lem was not interested in the social aspects of technology. Perhaps because already then he saw more negatives than positives to it. Why then, we could ask, did he put so much emphasis on technology – so much so, that he was often accused of scientism? I will try to partially answer that question once I have looked into his response to “vacuum of transcendence.”

What is Lem’s response to it? The same as extropians have today, even though they seem not to notice the vacuum. Lem describes “machine,” inside which there is a whole world, peopled with rational creatures – it is a product of the Designer, and it is made of electrical impulses. It is also a huge digital computer simulating a highly complex global physical reality. Part of the machine is “the Other World” – a place, where the residents go after their death. It can be programmed so that it can realize any type of transcendence that has ever appeared in human thought – from the Christian paradise and hell to Buddhist nirvana. Lem emphasizes – and it is an important methodological remark for him – that he is using the term “machine” only for the lack of a better one, which would be more fitting for the entity he has in mind. Today we could call it cyberspace. As Lem writes later, the designers of such world, suffering from “withering of transcendence” in their own reality, could at some point decide that it is possible and advisable to make an “Exodus” to the other, “artificial” world – as it does admit transcendence, which they know for sure, having programmed it that way. ←136 | 137→

We can see that from the technological point of view this is the same idea as the ones presented by extropians, which I have presented when discussing phantomology.171 But Lem, more attuned to philosophical questions, immediately renders it meaningless. In the sketch of a dialogue between a Designer and a skeptic (286–287), he proves that the contradiction does not lie in the “artificiality” of such a world (and we have already showed that the notion itself is meaningless in Lem’s thought), not in its “limits” (as it is no more limited to its inhabitants than ours is to us), but in the fact that for its inhabitants the transcendence it offers can be just a matter of faith, just as it is for us. Living inside such a world they cannot prove the existence of “afterlife,” without depriving it of its meaning. And it is also ontologically impossible, because the line between life and death is just as strict for them as it is for us – this is how the Designer programmed it, exactly so that they can only believe in their afterlife, and not know it. Only an external observer of such a world (i.e., the Designer) knows that the afterlife exists. The vast difference between faith and knowledge or science is absolutely clear for Lem here, despite his commitment to Reason. His Designer says:

Belief without after-death fulfillment means incomparably more to mortals than fulfillment or transcendence not preceded by belief… this is a highly interesting problem. It is real, that is, soluble, only for an observer who is positioned outside that world … When it comes to … suggestion that we introduce miracles into this “new world,” we have to reject it … Miracles are not a confirmation of belief. They are a transformation of the latter into knowledge because knowledge is based on observable facts – which the “miracles” would then become. Scientists would make them part of physics … to prove belief is to destroy it as it only exists in its full absurdity and groundlessness, in its rebellion against empiricism … Put briefly, a world in possession of the current knowledge about transcendence and what it looks like is a world without belief. (287–288) ←137 | 138→

This sums up one of the most important problems of the Western philosophy: the question of validity of unprovable statements about the world. There are many people who need a superior, outworldly justification for the world, but such a justification can only be effective according to Lem if it is arbitrary. Credo, quia absurdum, as Tertullian put it.172 This dilemma could only be eliminated if we could place ourselves outside this world and remain permanently “in-between worlds.”

Thus, a seemingly purely technological idea seems to become a center of purely philosophical thinking for Lem.173 He finishes with the following sentences:

The conclusion is that the source of Great Anxiety, and of the equally dangerous mindlessness, lies not in the “amputation” of transcendence by materialism in man but rather in the present social dynamics. It is not a renaissance of transcendence that is needed but rather a renaissance of society. (288)

With this sentence Lem takes a step toward philosophy and social practice, but – faithful to his convictions – he does not go any further down that road. He is convinced that while technology can be a correlate of social issues (which can be clearly seen in all the social meanings ascribed to the web), but it almost certainly cannot be a remedy to them. Technoevolution progresses independently from the development of society. These are two separate currents. This view, which can be traced throughout ST, is one of the arguments in favor of the utopian character of Lem’s thinking, as it necessitates assuming that human kind will somehow “grow up on its own” to benefit from all the amazing technological possibilities described in ST. Lem knows about this utopianism, but he does not like admitting it (as in the already quoted passage from Studia Filozoficzne). So far, however, there is no reason to believe that the technological growth has anything to do with the ethical progress in users. This chasm is quite problematic ←138 | 139→for the project of the species’ autoevolution, as I will show in the next part of this book.

The section “Cosmogonic Engineering” develops the idea of “creation of a world,” but without the issue of transcendence. Lem simply (?) proves the technological possibility of such occurrence, again being a quarter of a century ahead of extropians and other authors who were only inspired to think this way by the rapid growth of IT in the 1980s and 1990s. Lem imagines such a world as a cosmic-sized computer system, powered by star energy and simulating all “natural” phenomena in its circuits. No need to add here that the terms “natural” and “artificial” lose all their meaning by now.174

At this point, however, Lem get trapped in the paradox he has just thoroughly analyzed a moment earlier:

Equally, they [inhabitants of the world built by the Designer-Cosmogonist] are unable to establish whether someone created them and the cosmic habitat they freely roam, and, if so, who it was. Yet even though we have not been created by anyone (or at least by any personified being), there are plenty of philosophies that claim the contrary, declaring that our world is not all there is. But people who have pronounced such things have the same senses and brains that we do – sometimes rather sharp brains! (293–294)

This is somewhat surprising. One is tempted to ask where from the author draws his unshakable certitude that there is no creator of our world, given that on the preceding pages he has described nothing short of a creation of a world. How can we know that the building material of our universe – matter, energy and information – is not a “set of building blocks” available to the Designer in a higher-order world? The author himself admits that the sequence of such creations can be very long (292–293). This contradiction in Lem’s thinking is an illustration of a fairly persistent conflict in his work between the scientist and empiricist conviction about the superiority of Reason and Science over other human ways of experiencing reality on one hand, and a strong “sense of mystery,” a metaphysical yearning for a Great Dream to be hidden somewhere behind the facade of reality on the other. This clash of conviction actually has its own separate, thorough ←139 | 140→description within Lem’s oeuvre. It is the narrator’s words in His Master’s Voice, which express the conflict between amazement at the impersonal absolute of the laws of science on the one hand – and the impact of cumulated individual life experience, the psychological capacity of a scholar, his private fears or obsessions. It all clashes inside Peter Hogarth’s consciousness. While generally Lem remains insensitive to the relationship between science and society, he does seem to understand the relationship between science and the scholar’s personality very deeply. Generalizing a little, one could say that he cares about the adventures of an individual and the universe – and nothing less, nothing in-between. It is nearly certain that his interests were shaped in this way by his early war and Holocaust trauma.175

Later in the section “Cosmogonic Engineering” Lem points out that

The physicists from that world would only be able to discover the fact of creation (or rather of “having been created”) by comparing our real world with their own. It is only then that they would be able to see that our world is one level of Reality short when compared with theirs … Figuratively speaking, a created world [by the Designer] is perhaps like a very stable, very long, and internally coherent dream that no one is dreaming but that rather “is dreaming itself” – inside a “digital machine.” (294–295)

“Cosmogonic engineering” would then be free of the contradictions that phantomatics is flawed with, and in this sense it would be the “correct” variant of autoevolution. It is, however, a variant, which exceeds the project contained in ST as a whole. Lem sees it as a “deviation” and concludes the chapter with the following:

Someone could ask whether I believe it is at least a little bit likely that humans will one day make such – or similar – plans … I do not think so. Yet, if we take into account all those countless intelligent worlds revolving inside those enormous galaxies, while the number of those galaxies is incomparably higher than the number of … the grains of sand in a desert, this very number makes any improbability possible … Yet for no one in this whole abyss of stardust to arrive at an idea about such an undertaking, to try to bite more than it seems possible to chew – this indeed seems rather improbable to me. Before someone categorically disagrees, please, take a moment: July nights, during which the sky is so starry and beautiful, really encourage such contemplation. (296)

We already know what Lem thinks about a starry sky. In Part Three I will try to show what it entails for the moral law. ←140 | 141→

Since following Lem’s thought has led me here to issues of utmost fantasy (although still rooted in science), I will quote one more passage from this chapter:

Pantocreatics does not thus create eternity because this is impossible. Fortunately, it is also unnecessary. We have nothing in common with a rather peculiar being who would want to exist for billions of years on an individual level and who would realize what such an existence means. (No human being is ever going to be able to imagine that.) (290)

It seems to be an accurate statement. But even this immeasurable difference has not prevented scholars from considering the existence of such forms. It was undertaken in the context of the “heat death” of the universe – a scenario of universe’s development based on constant expansion until nearly all thermodynamic processes cease. Universe would then become a practically infinite, empty space, with rare individual elementary particles. (And the word “rare” is to be understood as broadly as possible. It has been calculated as one electron per a volume exceeding the universe observable today by many orders of magnitude.) There are people who dare to speculate about possible forms of life in such conditions. These would have to be forms with radically slow life processes (due to the lack of energy in their environment), and so their life span would be counted not even in billions of years, but in billions of billions of years (we find ourselves in the world of big numbers were the cumulated exponents deprive imagination of all its capacities). An article on the subject was once published by Freeman Dyson,176 which was then taken up by Paul Davies in The Last Three Minutes,177 and eventually found an exciting and well written rendition in a book of two American cosmologists Fred Adams and Greg Laughlin titled The Five Ages of the Universe.178 It is one more evidence how far scientific deduction can take us, although in this case it is pure fiction, not a description or a prediction. Perhaps this is just the kind of sci-fi Lem dreamt about.179 ←141 | 142→

After this digression into the most remote domain still available to our mind’s reach (although too distant for our imagination to grasp it), in the last chapter of ST Lem returns to the project of autoevolution of our species. The project – or its interpretation I am about to present – involves a number of ideas that have been circulating in the late 20th and early 21st century.

169It might be worth noting here that in the passage I have quoted Lem repeats – intentionally or not – one of the oldest topoi of European literature, that is, the image of society as a ship on a rough sea, threatened by destruction.

170From here it is close to scientific mysticism of, for example, “the gnosis of Princeton,” which has been the position of many scholars from Princeton since the 1970s (with the most eminent among them being Fritjof Capra). “The Gnosis of Princeton” involved a conviction, that every element of matter, all the way to atoms and elementary particles, is endowed with some kind of consciousness. This shows that Lem’s thought does occasionally, against his will, get close to the border between scientific thinking and magical and mystical one. For more on “the gnosis of Princeton”, see: Raymond Ruyer, La Gnose de Princeton (Paris: Fayard, 1974).

171Perhaps it is worth mentioning here that the source of all ideas of transferring human minds to cyberspace can be traced back the notions of noosphere and Omega Point established by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. The cyberspace itself, for example, the web, is sometimes seen as an incarnation of the noosphere, although one might doubt whether Teilhard would agree. An American cosmologist Frank Tipler is the author of an idea that the human kind, threatened by implosion of the universe (assuming the process will last long enough to be witnessed and that it will follow the scenario of expansion and then contraction) might make a “leap” into an artificially created dimension of time and space. Such concept is also akin to the ideas of Lem, Teilhard and the extropians.

172This is one of Lem’s favorite Latin quotes. His view on faith is quite different from contemporary theology. Lem seems to have especially valued Tertullian, Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, Nicholas of Cusa or Pascal – so thinkers representing negative theology.

173Again, I need to invoke the piece Non Serviam from Perfect Vacuum. Its “author” and protagonist, Professor Alfred Dobb, is giving an account of a discussion between two “personoids” he has created on a computer. They are discussing the genesis of their world, and they conclude with an accusation that its potential creator (i.e., Dobb) has entangled them in insolvable philosophical dilemmas (highly resembling ours). Ironically, Lem makes Dobb close the account with a statement that he feels responsible for the being of these creatures, so, as long as he can, he will not turn off the computer, despite appalling electricity bills.

174Here we should invoke New Cosmogony from the Perfect Vacuum volume, which is a quasi-fiction developing the idea. Lem’s apocryphs are usually read as intertextual games of the type Borges engaged in. However, they include a lot of autocommentaries on Lem’s discursive texts. It would be advisable to write an analysis that would give a detailed idea of all such links, just as I suggested earlier for links between his discursive and grotesque writings. The thesis about close links between Lem’s discursive works and his fictions is commonly accepted in Lemology, but it rarely produces thorough and precise analyses of the subject.

175I try to prove this thesis in the article I have already invoked here, Lem fantastyczny czy makabryczny?

176Freeman John Dyson, “Time Without End: Physics and Biology in an Open Universe,” Review of Modern Physics, no. 51 (1979), 447. Dyson’s main goal was a polemic with Steven Weinberg’s statement in his famous book The First Three Minutes: A Modern View of the Origin of the Universe: “The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.”

177Paul Davies, The Last Three Minutes: Conjectures about the Ultimate Fate of the Universe (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1994).

178Frank Adams, Greg Laughlin, The Five Ages of the Universe: Inside the Physics of the Eternity (New York: Free Press, 1999).

179Fred Hoyle, who probably has similar intellectual leanings, wrote a novel about an intelligent form of life of extraplanetary size (The Black Cloud, 1957). Lem mentions the novel in ST on page 318. Hoyle, however, is more interested in the links between science and politics than in the features of the entity. ←142 | 143→