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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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One plump schoolgirl (she looked about fifteen), peering inquisitively over her spectacles abruptly asked: “And what is it for?”

Solaris, chapter “The Monsters”

Humanists ought not hide behind a distaste for ideaologies to avoid participating in the processes of creating, shaping and fading of ideologies, unless they wish these processes to turn again them and their values.

Leszek Kołakowski, “Wielkie i Małe Kompleksy Humanistów,” in: Kultura i Fetysze

In his once controversial essay “Tragizm i maski tragizmu,” Jan Kott described the works of Conrad and Malraux in terms of tragedy that is defined by characters facing a world devoid of meaning. Kott claimed that tragedy is overcome when individuals enter the world of communal values. The characters in Lem’s novels are tragic in a very similar sense, but they do not find a similar solution. They are unable to find meaning in culturally sanctioned activities because culture barely exists in their world. Culture as a reservoir of the past, history and their symbols cultivated in social communication has no place in Lem’s novels. That is why their protagonists are absolutely lonely. Their only haven is science, reason and – especially in his early works – the ethos of male friendship rooted in the former two. But Lem frequently undermines all these sources of meaning. It seems that the very possibility of communication between people, based either on shared symbols or simple empathy, is highly problematic in his eyes. Perhaps this is why it was easy for him to come up with plans of autoevolution and was so eager to dive into the world of machines. For Lem, technology neutralizes culture and history.

Who is Lem as the author of “technological” essays? Is he really a positivist, as many of his critics see him? To answer this question, we should look at the four basic characteristics of positivist thinking, as laid out by Leszek Kołakowski247:

1.The rule of phenomenalism. “This may be briefly formulated as follows: there is no real difference between ‘essence’ and ‘phenomenon’ … We are entitled ←229 | 230→to record only that which is actually manifested in experience; opinions concerning occult entities of which experienced things are supposedly the manifestations are untrustworthy. Disagreements over questions that go beyond the domain of experience are purely verbal in character” (3).

This is, of course, about ridding the discourse of unnecessary speculative terms, following the principle entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem. Does Lem follow this rule? When reading Dialogues and ST superficially, it may seem so, especially if we believe his own declaration of loyalty to it and hostility toward speculative metaphysics. But a problem occurs when we ask whether the subject of his own inquiries abides by this principle. If we assume that the main topic of ST is the project of autoevolution, seen as correlate to human rationality (and I have devoted much of the present work to argue that it is indeed so), then we should also accept that among Lem’s implicit premises there is also at least one that refers to a notion that cannot be empirically verified – the idea of rationality itself. Moreover, in Lem’s theoretical writings there are a number of statements that allow for a possibility of there being an element of human existence that could not be reduced to empirical notions, and some of his novels (Solaris, His Master’s Voice) actually have this possibility as their main theme. It violates the rule of phenomenalism. I would rather say then that the whole of Lem’s thought is more of a proof that he may have intended to be faithful to the rule, but he was not able to fulfill that intention, because throughout most of his creative biography he was struggling with his own “metaphysical temptation.”

2.The rule of nominalism. “[It] comes down to the statement that we may not assume that any insight formulated in general terms can have any real referents other than individual concrete objects” (5).

Lem breaks this rule all the time. In ST there are a number of terms that are used as general terms, even though they have no concrete referents, even though they play a vital part in the book’s argument. It is enough to mention “Nature,” “Science” or “Designer.” At the beginning of Part Two, I showed how Lem mixes elements of an academic text and an informal essay. The tendency to use such terms is among those characteristics of his writings that qualify them as informal essays.

3.The rule “that denies cognitive value to value judgments and normative statements” (7). In ST there are dozens of such statements (and I have quoted many of them here). It is hard to say with absolute certainty whether Lem sees any cognitive values in them. It is clear, however, that he uses them as arguments. The validity of the project of autoevolution is based on them. ←230 | 231→

4.The rule of unity of the scientific method. It is about “the belief that the methods for acquiring valid knowledge, and the main stages in elaborating experience through theoretical reflection, are essentially the same in all spheres of experience” (9). Practically it entails subordinating the humanities to science, which we know well from the history of these two fields. Lem does not share such approach at all. In Dialogues and ST, which are the subject of my inquiry here, humanities are omitted altogether. They include no methodological declarations on acquiring knowledge of the non-physiological sphere of human existence (except cybernetic sociology in Dialogues, but even that is treated with some skepticism). I see this absence as a proof that Lem realized that positivism was helpless in that regard. In The Philosophy of Chance and Science Fiction and Futurology, Lem tried to build a theory of literature based on scientific premises, but he admitted the effects of those attempts were fruitless (that is the content of those books does not constitute a scientific theory in a strict sense). It is another proof of the difference between Lem’s declared positivism and his concrete thinking on human and biological reality. We should also remember that structuralism, which was originally meant to be a “scientific” theory of culture, was strongly criticized by Lem from the very beginning for its senseless use of scientific terms for the analysis of works of literature and art.

So Lem does not follow any of the four main rules of positivism. Or, to be more precise, he does not follow any of them unconditionally. His writings are so rich and diverse that there is enough material in it to prove the opposite thesis too. I have quoted Lem’s sentences that any genuine scientist could claim as theirs. But I think it would not be fair to see Lem merely as a positivist, as it would require omitting many themes of his works which I deem the most important. As a writer he was aware that there is a sphere of human existence which cannot be reduced to positive knowledge.248 The thing is that he opposes the existence of this sphere, as he believes it to be the source of insufferable and unavoidable contradictions of our condition. In that sense Lem, just as Tolstoy, is a fox who wants to be a hedgehog in Isaiah Berlin’s terms. He knows about the irreducible diversity of the world, but despite his better judgment, he wants to find a Grand Rule that would govern and explain it. As I have pointed out a number of times ←231 | 232→already, the project of autoevolution is a means to overcome these contradictions, and as such it is among many noble utopias that present a vision of man who saved himself from his own flaws. In Lem’s version (and in its simplified version that is posthumanism), posthuman beings achieve such level of perfection that the entire struggle between Nature and Culture, which plagues our current social and mental existence, becomes as distant as the polemics between Monophysites and Monothelites. In Lem’s view, autoevolution is to give us the opportunity to tame the horses in the Platonic chariot and achieve a dream balance of existence, even if it requires rejecting the heritage of a few dozen centuries of culture, philosophy, art and religion, the achievements of which are but a testimony to this hopeless struggle. In this uncompromising vision, humanity is but a sad episode. The autoevolutionary utopia is only a dream of liberation from “the terrible burden of being human.”249

We could shrug it off and just say: what kind of fantasies are these? Would it not be better to do something useful? Probably, yes. But I believe – and I am highly aware this judgment is not particularly significant – that the work of Stanisław Lem is one of the most beautiful adventures of human mind.

247Leszek Kołakowski, “An Over-all View of Positivism,” in: The Alienation of Reason. A History of Positivist Thought, trans. by N. Guterman (Garden City, NY: Doubleday and Company Inc., 1968), Chapter 1, 1–11.

248Jerzy Jarzębski emphasizes this duality in his essay Przypadek i wartości [“Chance and values”], which presents a thorough analysis of Lem the scientist and Lem the humanist.

249Maria Janion uses this phrase when discussing Zbignier Kubiak’s Mitologia Greków i Rzymian in her volume Żyjąc tracimy życie (Warszawa: W.A.B., 2003). ←232 | 233→