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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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27 Posthumanism and Bioethics

27Posthumanism and Bioethics

There are a number of dilemmas in the contemporary social theory and practice that can be read through the terms proposed by posthumanism. They are ethical issues related to euthanasia, cloning and all other forms of genetic engineering, as well as gay marriages, and, to some extent, abortion and suicide (although these are much older than the other ones and, like gay marriages, are not a result of technological growth).242 All these practices imply a deep intervention into human identity, as it has been understood in the Western philosophy so far. Following the debates between proponents and opponents of cloning people, one can notice that the main arguments against these practices focus on the question whether people are entitled to determine who is human. Conservative humanists such as Fukuyama claim that the very possibility that such a line could be drawn should be rejected, because human identity is a given determined by the supreme laws of biology. The discussion about abortion is similar in that regard, although the question is somewhat narrower in this case and it is as follows: when does a human embryo receive an individual identity (the extreme position is that it happens the moment a spermatozoon enters an egg cell). In the case of euthanasia243 and suicide, the discussion is whether people can decide when to end the life of other people (or their own) – it again touches on the issue of individual human identity, as it entails assuming that at some point in life, as a result of physical or spiritual suffering, the existence itself (i.e., continuing an individual’s identity) loses its supreme value. Gay marriages on the other hand (as opposed to civil unions) undermine sexual identity in a way similar to what I have described in Chapter 26, because their very existence deprives the traditional understanding of it and its meaning as a union of two people of opposite sexes.

I have already mentioned here that some of these issues arise from the juxtaposition of new technologies with traditional ethical norms rooted in the historical process. In an article that was quoted here at the end of Chapter 19, Lem described this juxtaposition as a “collision between faith and empiricism.” It is ←223 | 224→probably best seen in the cases of euthanasia and cloning. Now these problems can also be described in terms of posthumanism: procedures such as cloning or euthanasia radically undermine the meaning of identity as known so far. One could even claim that the entire cultural heritage does not provide us with clues on how to classify them. And this is not because we do not have enough exempla of these procedures – they are abundant in both history and literature – but because they undermine the very categories this culture has come up with. The “prefigurative” quality of our culture (in a sense proposed by Margaret Mead) touches on the most fundamental categories here: What is a human? Who is human? What does it mean to be human? Of course, those questions have always been asked – but only in a purely philosophical way. These were often decided in practice too – but always arbitrarily. Now, we are expected to answer them practically in a democratic and liberal discussion and procedure. And history cannot help in that, because in the first two centuries of its existence liberal democracy has never taken up those issues either as a philosophy or in policy.

I would suggest that the ethical dilemmas discussed here are a result of the collision of humanism and posthumanism. The default understanding of human identity presented by the supporters of cloning, euthanasia and gay marriages (as well as suicide conceived as a morally neutral deed) is in my view fully posthumanist. The implicit assumption is that individual’s identity is self-created, that it is independent from external factors (and especially from social and moral norms) and that autarchic identity can be freely shaped, created or destroyed with arbitrary convention or individual will – without looking back on the group, intersubjective or social sphere.

I do not wish to limit these issues to pure theory though. In the recent years, there have been many cases when euthanasia was not just a matter of conservative or liberal understanding of identity, but of an actual deep suffering. For example, in 2000, a 20-year-old French fireman Vincent Humbert was paralyzed as a result of a car crash; he also lost sight and ability to speak. However, he remained completely conscious (apart from a few months in a coma). With his right-hand fingers (which were the only ones he could still move), he wrote a book Je vous demante le droit de la mort,244 in which he was arguing for his right to terminate his own life. The authorities refused to allow this, but in 2003 Humbert was killed by his own mother (who was subsequently treated in a psychiatric hospital), which sparked a national discussion in France on the admissibility ←224 | 225→of euthanasia. This case, as many other similar situations, shows that the technological advancement of medicine as an art of keeping people alive is actually in conflict with its own ethical principles – and it has been so for a long time, but up until a few years ago, such cases were not a subject of a broad discussion, because, as with asexuality, there had been no term that would make the discussion of the phenomenon possible.245 Perhaps it is a temporary situation and we will soon achieve the kind of knowledge that will allow us to return power over their bodies to people who suffer from paralysis (but will we return youthfulness to the elderly without stepping on the way toward cyborg autoevolution?). But even then the dilemmas born on the borderline between humanism and posthumanism will not disappear. They are not just connected to the state of technology, but are a result of how we understand our existence and its limits.

For Aristotle, an object combining categorial features of a few different objects was monstrous. The mythological chimera was an example of such a monster for him – but so was woman. We can now observe this monstrosity on other examples: cyborgs, transgenders, clone, genetic chimeras – the entire posthumanism in theory and in practice is about constantly mixing categories hoping for new better ones to emerge. I will invoke Dukaj here again. His other novel Inne pieśni (2002) is set in a world governed by Aristotelian ontology. The protagonists of the novel start a war with adynatoses – creatures combining opposite categories in a way inconceivable for “regular” people (hence their name: “adynatos” in Greek means “impossible”). Is it not a grand metaphor of the conflict between humanism and posthumanism? James Shreeve, an American writer in biotechnology, wrote in an article about genetic chimeras: “When we start to blend the edges of things, we’re uneasy.”246

Here I finish this overview of the possible links between posthumanism and social problems connected with postmodernist thought and bioethics. It is merely an outline of the problematic that can direct further interpretations.

242I am treating all these issues only peripherally here. Therefore I am not going into any more specific distinctions (e.g., between passive and active euthanasia).

243For an overview of various perspectives on the subject, see: Marta Zimniak-Hałajko, “Bez bólu. O dobrej śmierci,” in: Ból (Gdańsk: słowo/obraz terytoria, 2004), 271–276 (it includes a variety of references).

244Vincent Humbert, Je vous demante le droit de la mort (Paris: Le Grand livre du mois, 2003).

245Even this drama can be found reflected in Lem’s works (although it may seem cynical to look for literary expressions of the issue). In Memoirs of a Space Traveler: Further Reminiscences of Ijon Tichy, there is a story of a scholar who, hoping to achieve immortality for his dead wife, put her “soul” in a small box. Ijon Tichy, mortified by the idea of an active consciousness petrified in eternal immobility and darkness, destroys this monument. (Philosophically, it is a reductio ad absurdum of the idea of immortality of the soul.)

246James Shreeve, “The Other Stem-Cell Debate,” New York Times, April 10, 2005. ←225 | 226→←226 | 227→