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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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11 Taking UFO Seriously

11Taking UFO Seriously

The first problem Lem discusses in ST after the initial chapter about “two evolutions” is the existence of two civilizations in the universe. For a contemporary reader this may be somewhat surprising and an argument for a view that Lem is only a sci-fi author. However, beginning ST with this subject is a very conscious and justified move. It needs to be remembered that in the 1960s the question of extraterrestrial intelligent forms of life was raised by serious scholars.122 This is the time of the vast SETI program (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence), all of which that was left 20 years later was E.T. in Spielberg’s blockbuster. In Soviet Byurakan an international symposium on extraterrestrial life was held, and Lem was an active participant. A study of contemporary writings on the subject could help determine the borders between the scientific treatment of the issue and the popular media news about unidentified flying object (UFO).123 In the 1970s the complete lack of positive results of the search for signals from other intelligent creatures (the so-called Silencium Universi) led to decreasing interest ←89 | 90→in the issue among scientists and eventually its shift into the mass culture, where it has flourished ever since, for example, in the X-Files series.124 The Silencium Universi is a serious problem in itself, but philosophical rather than scientific. It inspired Lem, both in ST and elsewhere, to think about whether potential intelligent aliens could be intentionally concealing their presence in the Universe.125

This would be reason enough for Lem to treat the problem of extraterrestrial civilizations as a pertinent one. Moreover, the problem has its justified place within the structure of ST. Lem starts with a premise that if he is to predict the development of our civilization, he first has to compare it with other civilizations. Or it should be done – but we know no other. From this lack Lem derives conclusions about what he believes the hypothetical civilizations have to be like. Rejecting the famous hypothesis formulated by von Hoerner about common self-destructive tendencies among cosmic civilizations,126 Lem points out that “the Intelligence we shall discover one day will possibly be so different from our ideas of it that we shall not even want to call it Intelligence” (68–69). This is a recurring theme of many of his novels, especially Solaris, His Master’s Voice and The Invincible: man is trapped in the solipsism of his own thinking and perception, and he can only feel it, when faced with an alien intelligence. Other forms of life may be too different for us to start a contact and understand their thinking – just as we cannot grasp how animals see the world127 (although Lem fails to see the analogy), or even the details of other people’s consciousness, especially if they are removed from us in time and space, or belong to other cultures. Of course, when it comes to contact with Aliens these differences would have been much bigger and more intense.

This is the chapter when for the first time in ST there is a suggestion that intelligent forms of life may not only transform their environment to adopt it to their ←90 | 91→needs, but they can also take up the task of transforming themselves through autoevolution (70–71). In such a case observing the traces of such creatures would be even more difficult for us, people. We are used to Reason, meaning “a heroic attack on surrounding matter” (70). But this, as I wrote before, is a positivist conviction. We can already see that autoevolution as conceived by Lem renders the opposition of the artificial and the natural meaningless. Looking for traces of intelligent life in the universe, we are looking for the type of transformations in Nature, which could be seen as a result of intentional acts of Reason (e.g., radio signals, which could not have been produced “naturally”). How are we convinced about such distinctions though, Lem asks? How do we know what is Nature and what is an effect of intentional action? Those distinctions are merely a result of the biological and later historical development of our species. Perhaps what we take to be nature is a product of some intelligent Designer. Such a view, once described as theism, known in modern physics in certain types of anthropic principle, and surfacing in ideological debates in the simplified form of “theory of intelligent design” is formulated by Lem in one of his fake reviews in A Perfect Vacuum, in New Cosmogony. Unconstrained by the seriousness of the essay form or a discursive text, he expresses a view that laws of physics are rules of a game played by great civilizations. Whether in its extreme form, or as old theism, or even the moderate versions to be found in ST – the thesis is clear: the distinction between Nature and Artificiality loses its meaning when we start asking for its criteria. If living creatures – humans or aliens – subject their own bodies to the kind of transformative practices to which they subject their environment, “the nature” and “the artificial” distinction becomes null. Why?

Once again I return to the distinction between “a discovery” and “an invention.” You can only “discover something” that existed before that, independently from its discoverer; “invention” is an act of creating something that did not exist in real life before. Uranus the planet certainly had existed before Herschel discovered it. A phonograph had certainly never existed before Edison built it. However, these common sense notions become more complicated in the discourse of the Natural and the Artificial. One could assume that the distinction has something to do with one of the fundamental qualities of the Western thought – its focus on the subject. The distinction between the subject – “I” – and the external world, which serves as the field of perception and activity of the subject but materially independent from it, has been in our thinking at least since Descartes. The body is the link between the “I” and the world – this will become very important for my analysis of posthumanism in the later part of the book. This sharp distinction is the reason why people of the West have had such trouble understanding Indian philosophical systems, for example, as they do not have a ←91 | 92→concept of an individual subject cognizing the world as external to it. The impact of the post-Cartesian philosophy of the subject is significant but a detailed analysis would be unnecessarily subtle for the purpose of this work. Here it is enough to suggest that the post-Cartesian subjectivity became the foundation of distinctions that I am describing here: the artificial, creativity and invention have been located on the side of the “I,” whereas the natural, transformation and discovery are all on the side of the world.128 It seems pertinent to remark that the philosophical romanticism strived to overcome these distinctions as early as the first half of the 19th century, but it had no practical impact on the hegemony of the enlightenment and positivism within the social praxis. Our time on the other hand really did bring a breakthrough in that regard. I want to show that ST is in fact a harbinger of this breakthrough, and in Part Three of this book I will try to prove that currently we are witnessing it actually happening, with utopian vision of further changes in that direction becoming intellectually available as well. “Autoevolution” is the key term here. The way Lem understands it means transplanting the category of “transformation” into the sphere of the subject. The subject (or, as Lem calls it, the Designer) begins to apply strategies to itself – to its own body – that were only applied to the external world before. And this, let me emphasize again, effectively obliterates the differences between the Natural and the Artificial, a discovery and an invention.

Of course, the concept of autoevolution needs to be thoroughly discussed and I shall do that in Part Three. Its understanding depends on technological solutions but largely also on the way the world is conceived of. It is closely linked with the notion of the body as well. That is why I will need to refer to phenomenology and gender studies, for example.

Writing about the question of extraterrestrial life as Lem saw it, one has to mention one more thing, or in fact one more fundamental philosophical problem related to progress in science and technology, which Lem writes about in ST. Up until the 20th century there had been no issue of the limits to human knowledge because human knowledge could grasp only the immediate human surroundings, a limited scope from the perspective of the universe: planet Earth, its solar system and what is contained within it. It could be said that the scope of scientific research was limited to the Lebenswelt. But in the 20th century it changed rapidly with the dynamic progress in physics and astronomy, which produced the theory of relativity and quantum mechanics and cosmology, leading to the ←92 | 93→burning question of the relationship between the cognized world and the perceptive tools and capacities. Theories and disciplines mentioned in the previous sentence have become deeply unintuitive. History of science tells us that their authors were in fact astonished by the results they reached – as exemplified in the many years of discussion between Einstein and Bohr about interpreting quantum mechanics or Einstein’s saying, repeated ad nauseam by scholars: Raffiniert ist der Herrgott, aber boshaft ist Er nicht. [“Subtle is the Lord, but He is not malicious”].129 It means that even though the laws of Nature are extremely hard to grasp and discover for a human mind, the world is ultimately knowable. (This is exactly what Wiener claims when he writes about the “Augustinian” vision of the world.) The developments in science in the second half of the 20th century have put that claim into question.130 Lem phrases the problem as follows: can people – as creatures shaped through evolutionary biology, so with a brain and senses which are primarily supposed to help them survive in the physical conditions of planet Earth – use the ultimately fairly random sensorium to really discover and understand all the laws of the world, both in micro- and macroscale? To put it both shortly and loftily: can our brain encompass the universe? Lem claims it cannot, as the biological and evolutionary heritage of our species limits us to a narrow scope of time and space. The fact that we can in no way represent sensually either the world of elementary particles, or the grand scale of the structure of the universe speaks in favor of that thesis. On the other hand though, the fact that we have been able to figure out the existence of these two levels of being based solely on abstract reasonings and that this knowledge is coherent, with slight incoherencies in its very basics (if “only” is the right word here) – this very fact shows that the human mind does have surprisingly large capacities. The knowledge we have about processes within the atomic nucleus or the dynamics of galaxy clusters is useless from the point of view of evolution (unless we treat building nuclear power plants as an element of a strategy of acquiring energy for the purpose of efficient survival, but even the most radical sociobiologists ←93 | 94→do not go that far). And yet – we reached it. It can be a sign of a huge excessive potential of our brains that the evolution gave us – and this is how it is generally interpreted, and Lem shares the view. Our main problem is we shall never be able to understand the limits of this knowledge. It is as if Pascal and Wittgenstein shook hands: the former with his sentence about the eternal silence of these infinite spaces; the latter with the thesis about the eye that cannot see itself. It is a paradox – one of many in Lem’s thinking – that when the human brain reaches a level of abstraction so extreme, that the senses have long stayed behind, suddenly the biological heritage intervenes with great force to remind us that we did not appear in this world for the purpose of learning the First Principles.

We can certainly surprise ourselves. One of the last sentences Comte, the father of positivism, uttered before his death is a telling testimony to that: he said man would never learn the chemical structure of stars. How ironic that only two years later (1859) Bunsen and Kirchhoff built the first spectroscope. The very existence of culture, art, religion, philosophy and literature is undoubtedly a miracle of sorts in that context. Stanisław Lem was aware of that. But in his own thinking, both in ST and elsewhere, he always reminds us where we come from. Many would rather forget the inglorious roots. As we shall see soon, Stanisław Lem has something special to offer to them as well.

The universe does not help us in our musings on our future, but we can speculate using arguments ex silentium and ex nihilo. This is how chapter three of ST concludes. Then, Lem returns to Earth to deal with Homo sapiens as a species. It is pertinent to quote his own self-commentary in a discussion published in Studia Filozoficzne. There he speaks about some of the implicit anthropological premises made in ST:

it is possible to equate the products of man with products of Nature in their efficiency, reliability, durability, universality, etc. It is also possible to try and differentiate between stages of such rivalry; it would have to start with the stage of regulation, i.e. of optimalizing stages of what is, or what is given (society, our brain, our body); the second stage would be that of creation (involving a transition from what is given to creating new solutions). (95)

The distinction is not kept everywhere in ST, but chapter four, which I will discuss shortly, does describe some improvements in the external reality of human life – the transition to the actual autoevolution will come later. Lem also expresses his view on human nature at that time, which is very important for our understanding of his intellectual route. Despite his self-proclaimed “skepticism” (Studia Filozoficzne…, 96), he is in fact still close to the unconditional optimism of Dialogues:←94 | 95→

The book [ST] assumes a certain kind of human and a certain kind of culture – “maximally rational.” It is premised on a historical development that will make this kind of human and culture more prevalent, more and more universal. That is the optimism which can be found in Summa. Without that direction of cultural development there would be no optimalization in actions, nor any rationality of efforts, nor the highest pace of growth or the best choice – to everyone’s benefit – among many possibilities.

Those premises have not been explicitly articulated – they can be read between the lines. Societies and individuals, which we know from history behave so splendidly only very rarely. My book turns these exceptions into a norm. It is a bold move, but I believe it is not entirely utopian. (97–98)131

122Including especially Carl Sagan (1934–1996), Francis Crick (1916–2004) and Sir Fred Hoyle (1915–2001).

123Ufology and the concept of ancient astronauts (i.e., that aliens were actively involved in the emergence of ancient cultures and civilizations) merit a careful analysis as parascientific discourses. Reading the writings in the field (especially the works of Erich von Daeniken) shows complex functioning of elements of language and scientific methodology. In short it can be said that the authors of such works reject the authority of “the officially accepted science,” but they employ its tools (or, strictly speaking, their simplified copies) to build their own theses in order to paradoxically add to their authority, based on “scientific precision.” Such authors are usually unaware of the paradox and the fact that their arguments notoriously violate the most basic principles of scientific thinking (including the principle of reproducibility of experiments). Lem often emphasizes that science cannot deal with one-time phenomena (in ST he writes about it in the chapter “Extrasensory Phenomena,” 354–358). A more thorough analysis of ufological texts would require a separate study. Many have criticized ufology and the concept of ancient astronauts (cf., e.g.: Wiktor Stoczkowski, Des hommes, des dieux et des extraterrestres. Ethnologie d’une croyance moderne [Paris: Flammarion, 1999]). A psychoanalytic take on the UFO phenomenon can be found in Carl Gustav Jung’s essay Flying Saucers: A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Skies. So far, however, there have been no analyses (at least not in Poland) of the language of the discourse on ufology and ancient aliens that would approach the subject in the way I suggest in this note.

124The SETI program is still in operation though and it is dynamic, as can be seen on its rich website: Many personal computers connected to the Internet also analyze the radio data. In the 1990s both NASA and its European counterpart European Space Agency (ESA) renewed their interest in the subject, now as “astrobiology,” which does not look for intelligent forms of life but for bacteria.

125Cf. especially The New Cosmogony in: A Perfect Vacuum.

126It is the time of the most intense arms race. Von Hoerner’s hypothesis, which was formulated to explain Silencium Universi, assumes that every or nearly every civilization destroys itself once it reaches the technological stage – and therefore it never has enough time to broadcast signals of its existence into the universe.

127Cf. Thomas Nagel, “What Is It Like To Be a Bat?,” in: Mortal Questions (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979).

128For a somewhat different approach to the same problem, cf. Jerzy Jarzębski, Wszechświat Lema…, 279–280.

129The sentence appears in ST (173) in English as “God is sophisticated, but he is not malicious.”

130In Dyskusje…, Małgorzata Szpakowska quotes a sentence from Fritjof Capra: “in the 20th century for the first time the human capacity to understand the universe has been put into question;” and comments: “Lem does not draw such radical conclusions; the very thought that the world could turn out to be essentially un-understandable is completely foreign to him” (68). In this chapter I claim it is quite the opposite: in ST, Lem does admit such a possibility and this is the cause of one of the important aporiae in the structure of the work.

131The utopian character of Lem’s predictions and projects will be analyzed in the next part of this book. ←95 | 96→←96 | 97→