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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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9 Prolegomena


I have always found human oscillation within the boundaries determined by elementary provisions of little intellectual interest and therefore I was more eager to deal with utterly extreme possibilities (as in S[umma] Techn[ologiae] for instance), without being concerned with how realistic they might be. But then I was never involved in futurology as it is conceived today, which is sort of descriptive, but I preferred being a normativist… and I never claimed otherwise, did I…

Letter to an unidentified addressee, September 29, 1972

Yet, Summa Technologiae is a work of futurology, albeit not a typical one. Without a doubt. This is how the author planned it and it can be read from its content and structure. It is sometimes considered to be a project in philosophy of science and technology, and such themes can be traced in it, whenever Lem is pondering on the ontological status of his observations and indulges in methodological digressions.101 However, treating ST as belonging entirely to philosophy of science and technology prevents an analysis of other aspects of it, which are much more significant in my view.

The spirit of cybernetics hovers over the entire ST. It needs to be remembered that the book was written at a time of unfading enthusiasm about science. It is particularly clear in chapter 4 (“Intelectronics”), containing predictions on the development of “artificial brains.” There, Lem employs conceptual tours and arguments that are close to the ones we saw in Dialogues, including the specter of “cybernetic sociology.” It seems that this part of ST stood the test of time the least, as the growth of computers – both technologically and socially – ended up going in a completely different direction, which we can see quite clearly today. But even this chapter contains important points that require some scrutiny.

“Futurology,” “philosophy of science and technology,” “cybernetics.” These are the key words in ST. Before I proceed to outlining the general principles of its structure, I need to point out that the first of these terms is particularly ←77 | 78→important in this chapter. And this is because if the author really intended this work as a prediction, as a set of visions for the future (and Lem states such intention explicitly in many places), then someone venturing to interpret the work has every right to compare this type of prognosis with the current state of affairs. And most of Part Two of my book will be devoted to such a comparison. Going through subsequent chapters of ST, I shall try to show in what ways the notions and predictions formulated by Lem relate to the contemporary state – not of science and technology, as I lack competence in that regard, but to the contemporary state of thought about them. And that seems to be an acceptable approach, as ST itself is a type of such thought, and not a handbook or a synthesis. Some of the books Lem published in the 1990s are his own responses to these predictions.102 However, he focuses only on the negative consequences of the dynamic progress of technology, discussing them with little interest though, which, one may assume, is a result of his feeling of disappointment that his main idea that should govern the progress of technology – that is, rationality and proportional growth of the potential of technology and ethical pragmatics of its use – did not come true at all.

The central subject that ST circles around, according to the author, is “a slogan which through its associations sounds rather amusing, that is the call to ‘catch up to and even overtake Nature’.”103 Our species, according to Lem, should go beyond limitations imposed by evolution and physical conditions of growth, but Nature should help with that, suggesting the best solutions.104 This is how one could summarize the book, which includes the following passage in one of the initial chapters:

The end of this road does not lie, as some claim, in the “duplication” of the human design or the design of some other living organisms, inside the electrical circuits of digital machines. For now, life’s technology is far ahead of us. We have to catch up with it – not to ape its results but to exceed its seemingly unmatched perfection. (25) ←78 | 79→

It only becomes clear at the end of the book that this is where Lem states his intention according to which ST is to become not only a general prediction for the development of civilization, but also a project of autoevolution of the humankind – the central element of the civilization’s growth. This is how – as a utopian project of autoevolution – I will treat ST throughout this book. I am emphasizing it here in order to avoid misunderstandings in the parts that will follow, especially as the main subject of ST is built up with numerous preliminary studies, each requiring a separate analysis. My following chapters will then run parallel to the development of the text of ST, without merely summarizing it, but instead offering an extensive commentary, which will be concluded with an attempt to synthesize the meaning of this complex work. Then, in Part Three, I shall try to contextualize Lem’s project of autoevolution with broad reference to contemporary intellectual tendencies.

A peculiar quality of Lem’s style in ST needs to be pointed out here. Words such as “Nature,” “Machine,” “Reason,”105 “Designer,” “Science,” “Culture” appear on nearly every page, usually capitalized. For Lem they are the fundamental notions around which he weaves his entire discourse, and not only in ST. But they are not explained anywhere. Lem does not provide precise definitions of them (with the exception of a relatively precise definition of “Machine” at the beginning of the fifth chapter), but he does often contextualize them. They are not scientific terms then, but metaphors rather, figures, which Lem uses to map out the scope of his thought. They are indefinable, probably partly because he sees them all as self-evident, and partly because these are his primary notions. It resembles some old philosophical systems with their fundamental concepts such as “God,” “being,” “spirit” – to the explanation of which a whole system would be devoted, while they themselves were to guarantee its coherence by marking the very core of reality, “the transcendental signified.” In that sense, Lem is closer to the tradition of the Western metaphysics than he is to “the ideology of scientist technocracy” – assuming we do not treat the latter as a type of metaphysics as well (and what would an absolutization of Reason and Nature be?). ←79 | 80→

ST was not analyzed more often than Dialogues – hundreds of phrases such as “personoclastic cerebromatization,”106 would scare off humanists, while scientists would be put off by the bold “fantastic” prediction and the “vagueness” of an informal essay. In the few interpretations that have been published, ST was mostly seen – if not simply as glorifying science and technology, then at least as an important stage in thinking about them.107 The reviewers did notice that in ST Lem was in fact modifying the meaning of those notions as they were known before. It was only Małgorzata Szpakowska and Jerzy Jarzębski who, starting in the late 1980s, began to notice that Lem was in fact subverting the very distinction between what is scientific and what is not, and what is natural or artificial. However, these two most eminent Polish Lem scholars differ radically in their interpretation of the fact. In her Dyskusje…, Szpakowska wrote: “Lem is convinced about the continuity between the behavior of human as a biological creature and human technological efforts mediated through conscious actions” (66). And immediately after: “From the point of view of an individual human subject technoevolution is something external, independent and unavoidable, as bioevolution is for an individual creature, which at best is capable of looking for the best tactic in struggle for survival.” For Szpakowska, technoevolution, just as most other themes in Lem’s discursive works (as opposed to his fictions), has no metaphysical connotations. Jarzębski has a radically different approach and he devoted a lot more attention to neutralizing the Natural/Artificial distinction. In the article Naturalne, sztuczne i dziura w kosmosie [“The Natural, the Artificial and a Hole in the Universe”],108 he claims obliterating this distinction in Lem’s thought correlates with the anxiety about the superior meaning of human existence in the Universe, and the notion of Reason is a factor that can help dispel this anxiety.←80 | 81→

Lem’s writing shows that there is no way out of this dilemma [of desiring meaning in a meaningless world – PM]. Perhaps then there is faith in the existence of transcendence – not a religious one, but rather a philosophical one: as the space where the laws of our evolution are rooted (perhaps by some kind of superior consciousness) and hence their impersonal and unconditional character is redeemed. This is also where Reason can escape the trap of a closed universe with its antinomies. (297)

According to Jarzębski in Lem’s works Reason:

becomes only something like a passenger, who temporarily settles inside the body of the evolving humankind in order to use this habitat to its biological limit and make a leap into another reality, move into the environment of increasingly complex machines. Once it mounts mechanisms, Reason will likely again exploit their potential to the limit in order to then move onto another horse – and so on.109

This type of Hegelian vision of Reason seems to me to be too far-fetched a hypostasis, as Lem probably never accepted Reason as an entity with such a degree of ontological independence. I believe it would be too “metaphysical” a leap for an author who usually avoided any metaphysics. On the other hand though Jarzębski’s view corresponds well with his interpretation of the title of ST.

Jarzębski also points to the themes in Lem’s fiction that refer to lifting the opposition between the Natural and the Artificial. It is one of the subjects of Observation on the Spot – the lifting of this distinction surfaces there as the ethicsphere of Entia, permeated with microscopic particles, “quickies,” which make it impossible for Entians to commit acts that are forbidden by their law or harmful to others. Jarzębski writes: “It is about bringing the designer’s work to a level where differentiating between the artificial and the natural would no longer be possible, and hence the very matter itself (to a certain degree) – ‘the laws of nature’ – would fall into the scope of engineer’s skills. … The very idea of obliterating the differences between the artificial and the natural becomes important here and it triumphs. As a result the entire universe becomes an arena of technological mechanisms and is (potentially) permeated by rational will.”110 Jarzębski also points out that countercultural movements in the second half of the 20th century opposed just such a model of the world: “A human surrounded with technological devices, enhanced through them and enriched by them, is no longer the same human as before. So this modification could be rejected.”111 It ←81 | 82→turns out, however, as I shall try to show, that in the context of Lem’s thought on technology such arguments lose meaning.

Now, in the 21st century, this destruction of scientist and positivist oppositions becomes clearer and clearer. Let us read the author’s words more closely:

We shall also, by way of speculation, consider the domains in which man’s enhanced activity of this kind will match Nature’s work. Even then will man remain subject to limitations, the material aspect of which – conditioned, as they will be by the technology of the future – we cannot predict, but the psychological effects of which we can at least partially grasp because we are ourselves human. The thread of such understanding will only be broken when man, in a thousand or a million years’ time, gives up his entire animal heritage, his imperfect and impermanent body, for the sake of a more perfect design, and when he turns into a being so much higher than us that it will become alien to us. Our preview of the future will thus have to stop at sketching out the beginnings of this autoevolution of the species. (40)

Lem “outlines the beginnings of autoevolution of the species” on the hundreds of pages of ST that follow. The analysis leads again, as in Dialogues, on a high level of abstraction, carefully avoiding any specifics. Jerzy Jarzębski mentions that he was surprised by the lack of descriptions of everyday life of the people of the future.112 Lem does not include them because he knows it is easier to predict the general progress of civilization than the details of it, and moreover one can presume he has little interest for the everyday of the future. He is interested in thorough transformations of human world, global or even cosmic changes – and not what we would eat and how we would spend our free time. He described it in his novels (most broadly in Return from the Stars – and he considered this the poorest of his novels). The everyday life of normal people seems repulsive to Lem, which can be confirmed by his disgust with contemporary technology, stemming to an extent from it having become “common,” from computers descending from the highs of science to business and pop culture, which started with the introduction of personal computers, and intensified with culture 2.0.

The “absence of the everyday,” which was so astonishing to Jarzębski, is a symptom of a more general “absence” or “lack” in ST. Lem is hardly interested with general social processes at all there – on any level. He almost does not mention the question of the influence of the great technological changes, which he describes passionately in the book, on the social, cultural and political life. There are only a few remarks about social cybernetics in ST, a faint echo of the subject extensively treated in Dialogues, and a very limited analysis of psychological and social consequences of phantomatics. ST is suspended in “social vacuum.” Here it is interestingly ←82 | 83→different from the contemporary philosophy of technology, which mostly focuses on rationality of the technological progress in the social context and on the human responsibility for this progress and its impact on the habitable zone and future generations.113 It is easy to explain Lem’s perspective in ST. First, and that is an accidental reason, hoping to predict the social development, he would immediately end up in conflict with the contemporary political ideology, risking, at best, censorship, and in the worst case scenario – putting the entire ST to rest. Second, and this is a much sounder reason intellectually, Lem probably decided that predicting technological and scientific changes, while risky, can still be sensible, as the range of these changes is somehow conditioned by the laws of physics, mathematics and logic, whereas any prediction about social changes (even if they are related to the former) is completely random, as the development of society and culture cannot be contained by any rules or any theoretical model – so one can predict anything there.114 Omitting the domain of social communication has a huge unwarranted impact on the whole of Lem’s project of future civilization, as it practically prevents any thought on culture – if culture is to be understood as a correlate and center of this communication. Therefore, the entire issue of human autoevolution, which is the subject of ST, is located beyond culture and beyond the sphere of the social.

In the interpretation of Summa Technologiae, which I present on the following pages, I describe “technology as life world” – Lebenswelt. This concept, derived from phenomenology, described well the function of technology in the future civilization, both according to Lem, and according to the numerous contemporary theoreticians, whose views will be discussed here. Technology and its products have been taking over the world of our experience since at least the beginning of the 20th century. Most of the contemporary cultural studies is focused on the consequences of the “real” world being mediated by its technological replicas and representations. ST is also analyzed here as an original attempt to grasp this process of takeover and its possible implications.

101Kołakowski identified ST as a work belonging to the field of philosophy of technology, which was, too, refuted by Lem in their dispute.

102Cf. Jerzy Jarzębski, “Summa Technologiae i jej potomstwo.” This refers mostly to Tajmenica chińskiego pokoju, Bomba megabitowa and Okamgnienie. Numerous remarks about the accuracy of his predictions in ST are scattered throughout Lem’s writings starting with the early 1990s.

103“Discussion [on ST]”, Studia Filozoficzne, no. 2 (1995), 95.

104It is telling that Lem generally ignores one of the basic qualities of the Western culture – that people aim to go beyond Nature through Culture. Instead he proposes a paradox of “going beyond Nature through Nature,” the meaning of which will be thoroughly analyzed here.

105In the English translation of ST, Joanna Zylinska chose to translate the Polish word “Rozum” as “Intelligence,” which has some merit, but it seems that the connotations related to the Enlightenment are more pertinent in this case, so the word “Reason” would be more accurate here. I leave Zylinska’s translations unchanged in that regard, but translate “Rozum” and “Reason” whenever the author references the term outside quotations (Olga Kaczmarek).

106On page 217. It means a mechanical, invasive transformation of human brain, which irrevocably changes the personality of the person subjected to this procedure. The notion appears in the context of social engineering.

107Kołakowski, “Lemowi,” Studia Filozoficzne, no. 2 (1965). Apart from that one, four Polish editions inspired altogether twelve press reviews (based on relevant volumes of the annual Polish Literary Bibliography). The 1st edition (Kraków: WL, 1964, 470) – 6 reviews; the 2nd amended edition (Kraków: WL, 1967, 97) – 2 reviews; 3rd edition (Kraków: WL, 1974, 505) – 2 reviews; 4th amended edition (Lublin: Wydawnictwo Lubelskie, 1984, 352) – 2 reviews. So far ST has been translated to Russian (1968), Hungarian (1972, 1977), Serbo-Croation (1977), German (1974, reprinted in 1978, 1980, 1981, 1986), Latvian (1987), Czech (1995) and English (2013).

108Jerzy Jarzębski, Wszechświat Lema…, 278–297.

109“Literackie przygody uniwersalnego Rozumu,” in: Wszechświat Lema…, 143; see also further on page 144 and following.

110“Kosmogonia i konsolacja”…, 97, 98.

111“Literackie przygody uniwersalnego Rozumu”, 164.

112Summa technologiae i jej potomstwo”…, 483–494.

113In the notes to ST following sentences: can be found “All of this does not, of course, amount to suggesting an equivalence between man and any material object to be constructed or any technical product to be improved. The aura of moral responsibility must envelop the field of bioconstructionism – which is an area of great risk (but also perhaps of equally great hope)” (321). These sentences remain unrelated to the whole of the book though.

114If that supposition is correct, it means that while writing ST, Lem had to give up his conviction about the possibility of cybernetically regulating the social system, which he widely promoted in Dialogues. Hence, the sparsity of remarks on the subject in ST. See also the next note. ←83 | 84→←84 | 85→