Back in the year two thousand, Peter Swirski took his interdisciplinary approach to Edgar Allan Poe and Stanislaw Lem. Rather than gushing over their artistic talent, Swirski focused on the extent to which these literary giants stepped into fields usually classified as ‘sciences only’. By carefully depicting the epistemological sharpness of their works, he made some daring predictions regarding the future development of artificial intelligence (AI), particularly from the point of view of creativity. What must have seemed as an exaggeration at best and science fiction at worst, was soon collaborated when a cognitive scientist Ayse Saygin came up with rather similar conclusions regarding the role of pragmatic factors in the administration of the Turing test. Lucky guess on the part of literature? Perhaps.
However, to those of us who have always believed in literature’s right to play the game of knowledge, Swirski’s Between Literature and Science: Poe, Lem, and Explorations in Aesthetics, Cognitive Science, and Literary Knowledge (McGill-Queen’s UP), was a welcome pointer on how to proceed with explicating literature’s credentials in doing so. Intrigued by how far Swirski came in this process, often following the crumbs Stanislaw Lem scattered throughout his fiction, I bring these two together here in order to bolster the case for literature’s cognitive relevance. In particular, I will focus on literary treatment of science and philosophy. Allegedly worlds apart, sciences and philosophy are more at home in literature than often assumed. No one shows this better than Stanislaw Lem and few are as committed to proving it as Peter Swirski.
A man who tried his hands at every genre known to literature but claimed to have been born to write science fiction, Polish writer Stanislaw Lem remains a puzzling figure. Highly acclaimed as a fiction writer but equally respected for his philosophical talent, a man whose boundless imagination was matched only by insatiable curiosity that spanned from natural and social sciences and technologies to philosophy and the humanities, Lem is unique in couching science into philosophy and building fictional worlds around it. Much to dismay of literary aestheticians who hold on to the idea of fiction as an art form exclusively at the service of aesthetic delight, Lem reversed the order of things and put literature at the service of knowledge.
This was an incentive enough for Swirski to turn his fictional scenarios into scientific hypotheses and test them against the real world. A literary scholar whose approach to literature is unique in depth and exemplary in scope, Swirski is to be credited with introducing Lem to the English-speaking world – and, pretty much everyone else. Perpetually intrigued by Lem’s mixture of imaginings and predictions, Swirski accomplishes what no scholar did before, in translating Lem’s science-fictional futurologies into a philosophical-scientific apparatus designed to probe the conceptual framework we use to think about ourselves and our world.
Bringing into focus intellectual concerns Lem poured into his literary creations, Swirski bridges the gap between his fictional worlds and philosophical, social, political and scientific aspects of our world today. His latest additions to the topic, which conclusively sealed his status as a world-wide leading expert on Lem, include From Literature to Biterature: Lem, Turing, Darwin, and Explorations in Computer Literature, Philosophy of Mind, and Cultural Evolution (McGill-Queen UP 2013), Lemography; Stanislaw Lem in the Eyes of the World (co-edited by Waclaw M. Osadnik, a noted expert in Polish Studies, Liverpool UP, 2014), and Stanislaw Lem, Philosopher of the Future (Liverpool UP, 2015). This isn’t to say that his earlier work is any less relevant – in A Stanislaw Lem Reader (Northwestern UP, 1997), for example, you read interviews he conducted with Lem, and Lem’s own analysis of his most famous nonfictional work, Summa Technologiae.
Lemography unravels the “unknown Lem”, as it charts a road map into writer’s life and work in post-war Poland. Reinterpreting some of Lem’s most famous novels, it brings to the fore his earliest works (parts of which are for the first time brought to life in English, thanks to Swirski’s translation) and it debunks the myth of Lem as primarily science fiction writer, analyzing the mastery behind his mystery narratives and philosophical pieces. As scholars come together to introduce those of his works that had been neglected or overlooked, this collection is a good starting point for all who want to give Lem a try, as well as for those interested in novel interpretations of this wonder-writer.
With Stanislaw Lem, Philosopher of the Future, Swirski added another layer to the portrait of the artist, beginning with the rich background into Lem’s life and career and ending with discussion of the relevance of Lem’s overall literary opus in the light of contemporary technological and scientific achievements. Interesting as a case study of how Lem modelled his fiction to suit his intellectual preoccupations, this book is particularly rewarding in showing the ease with which readers are guided into intellectual pathways that have never before laid in front of them.
Out of the three, From Literature to Biterature is the most thought-provoking, as it charts humanity’s way of taking evolution into their own hands (or, which comes to the same thing, of subjecting biology to the needs and desires of biotechnology). Taking cues from A History of Bitic Literature,Lem’s 1973. meta-fictional ponderings over the possibility of computer-written literature, Swirski sets off by disputing Lem’s account of ‘computorship’ and ends up debating the nature of consciousness (with no other than John Searle) and the connection between evolution and our capacity for thinking. Bringing Darwin and Alan Turing together, he predicts a world in which computers will be autonomous, independent creatures minding their own business and utterly uninterested in us, the humans. Or, better to say, us ‘as we will have designed ourselves’, given all the artificial means at our disposal provided by nanotechnology, genetics, synthetic biology and the like.
Swirski’s take on Lem is enriched by his theoretical work regarding the cognitive ways of literary fiction, developed in his Of Literature and Knowledge: Explorations in Narrative Thought Experiments, Evolution, and Game Theory (Routledge, 2007). To explain how literature contributes to our overall cognitive economy, he incorporates researches into literary Darwinism (roughly, a view on which our propensity to tell stories is evolutionary determined, as it fosters our chances of survival), with researches into cognitive sciences, which teach that, as ‘Homo narrativus’, we organize, memorize, think and learn better when information is given in a narrative form. Does it matter that narration is fictional, rather than factual?
Surprisingly, not really, though this isn’t to say that ‘anything goes’ when it comes to the kinds of stories we can actually cash out cognitively. Rather, what matters is how these stories affect our thinking, reflective capacities. An explanation most promising has it that fiction is, structurally and in terms of content, a type of thought experiment – an experiment that cannot be enacted in the laboratories or in any kind of controlled environment, but can be enacted in our imagination. As an evolutionary adaptation, this kind of reasoning is crucial to our survival. Were it not for our capacity to imagine things, contemplate about the possible outcomes of our actions and consider their pros and cons ‘off line’, our chances of performing our everyday activities would be drastically diminished, not to say impossible.
A to Z of Lem’s philosophy
By making philosophy the fundamental aspect of what he writes about, Lem reveals the full potential of literary fiction to give substance to abstract philosophical problems. Even the sketchiest account of his main philosophical concerns would fill in a book in its own right, with a chapter on epistemology, ethics, metaphysics, philosophy of science, bioethics, philosophy of literature, philosophy of culture, and, for those willing to embrace the term, philosophy of future. His philosophical tendencies are obvious as much in his style as they are in the choice of topics. Memoirs of a Space Traveller: Further Reminiscences of Ijon Tichy is but one case in point. Stories collected in this marvellous treatise read as transcripts of philosophical debates featuring philosophers such as David Chalmers, Berry Stroud or Sydney Shoemaker. With minimal plot and usually no more than two characters, the ‘action’ of these stories is built exclusively on characters’ debating the nature of thinking and consciousness, or the possibilities of discovering the ultimate reality.
Echoing the concerns of some of the greatest epistemologists in the history of philosophy, Lem tirelessly explores the limits of what can be know and the methods with which this knowledge is available. Repeatedly devising ‘brain in a vat’ scenarios, he argues that we can never gain certainty with respect to our own position in the world, or to the world itself for that matter. Not only are there no secure principles of knowledge acquisition, but the world itself, the object of our knowledge, does not stand to the scrutiny. This scepticism is further bolstered when even the best player in town, science, fails to deliver it. Many of Lem’s short stories play with this theme, as well as his most famous novel, Solaris – easily the most misinterpreted novel Lem wrote, withfilmmakers seeing it as a love story and a journey into moral maturity rather than as an epistemic enterprise. Furious at those who failed to appreciate the epistemological theme and argumentative pattern of a novel, Lem was not shy in criticizing them.
If scepticism is one pole of Lem’s philosophy, his pessimism regarding humanity’s capacity for ethical development is another – understandably so, claims Swirski, attributing Lem’s gloomy attitudes to the experience of war, Nazism and Stalinism. Deeply troubled by humanity’s incapacity to create peaceful co-existence, yet convinced that, on our own, we will never overcome it, Lem takes his pessimism to the next level. Even if there were aliens, he argues, we would never manage to establish any significant form of contact or collaboration with them. If we can’t get along with our own kind, why expect we could get along with creatures different from us?
For Lem, the problem isn’t whether we need to do something to keep our aggression under control, but how to do it. Repeatedly going back to the question of a how to maintain peace, Lem plays around with various models of political and military arrangements that might keep us from dropping bombs at one another. In The Futurological Congress – a story that is, among other things, an anthem to the modern day disease known as consumerism, and arguably, Lem’s most developed account of the ways of politics – he describes a political arrangement based on the radical epistemic paternalism, with government withholding information from the citizens and manipulating them by keeping them in the constant state of drug-induced delusion. As a counterbalance our ethical/psychological make-up that, unavoidably and irreparably, keeps us committed to Hobbesian ‘war of all against all’, Lem hints at various forms of enforced social engineering and chemically induced obedience and passivity.
Could it work? Should we want it? Swirski’s fifteen years long research into the topic of desirability, availability and possibility of deagression shows that theoretically and practically, it is not an option. Try as we might, the aggression is here to stay – in case you wonder why, I suggest diving into his American Utopia and Social Engineering in Literature, Social Thought, and Political History (Routledge, 2011) for a clue. For a shortcut into the answer, suffice to mention evolutionary determined push we all have for status seeking and preferring ‘me’ over ‘you’ and ‘us’ over ‘them’, coupled with such naturally given facts as limitation of resources. Even the morally best among us need the aggressive gen to fight for themselves and protect their families. Like all other emotions, the ‘aggressive’ ones have their biologically determined functions that cannot be eradicated from the overall human make up.
As for practical aspects of implementing deagression (which, in Lem goes under the name of betrization), ask yourself who in their right mind would willingly turn oneself into a sitting duck, on the blind trust that everyone else would do the same. Free riders are all over the place, and so are power-hungry individuals and countries who would not think twice before snatching the option of subduing the de-aggressed people and countries. Slavery is one of the oldest forms of human social arrangement and for all the ‘civilized’ progress we made along the way, a desire for supremacy over others still runs deeply in our genes. Sometimes for economic reasons, sometimes for religious, often out of pure egoism and stupidity, human beings simply have the urge to point at others and see them as a threat.
Lem’s philosophical relevance is at its peak when it comes to combining his metaphysical probings into what makes us humans with ethical conundrums raised by developments in the sciences and technology. Poking at the core of our biologically given, evolutionary designed, genetically determined identities, Lem questions the role of our bodies in our identities, and the nature of our ethical, epistemic and aesthetic agency. Nothing however drives his ontology as hard as his interest in evolution – or better to say, his depiction of the ways in which humans will become knowledgeable enough to take evolution into their own hands. Behind his descriptions of distant futures and worlds quite different from the one we know, lurks a man, but a man so changed and transformed that none of the most famous science fiction characters that populate our popular culture can come close to. Is it still a man? It is hard to tell.
The lesson from Lem is that the usual templates we use to think about future people – the homogeneity at the level of appearance, intellectual, artistic or athletic skills, the fragmentation at the level of modifications, the separation created by those who will be modified and those who will not – aren’t conceptually rich enough. They fall short of probing the core problem humanity will have to face – that of determining what in fact is human. Playing around with a host of political problems (availability of transformative procedures, the question of who gets to decide and the like), ethical dilemmas (what rights will the new people have – or the old ones, once the ratio changes favouring the new species) and practical concerns (how to house and feed people who are as resistant to death as future people are likely to be), Lem shows that it is high time we took this question seriously.
The sciences and where they brought us
Asked by Swirski about the motivation behind his writings – topics, style, philosophical ideas – Lem claimed he was writing about things that interested him in a way he felt was right to explore them. “Writing for over forty years” he explains, “I have become increasingly given to simple curiosity about what this world is going to look like in the future.” In itself, this would be nothing more than an interesting biographical note, were it not for the fact that, with respect to three things he envisioned as a driving force in a 21st century – digital technology, information boom and bio-technology – he got is so damn right. Hats down to curiosity, thumb up to literary imagination!
Computers have been around for long enough now and no arguments are needed to convince anyone of their usefulness. But it is interesting that quite likely (or almost certainly, if you take Swirski’s word), any day now, computers will quite rapidly develop their own ways of being. From Literature to Biterature leaves little to imagination, as Swirski describes the way that humanity will slowly but inevitably turn themselves into subordinate creatures incapable of surviving without computers. With various sorts of iphones, smart phones, laptops etc. rapidly taking over more and more of our daily activities, and becoming more and more efficient in making our lives easier and more comfortable – from memorizing your Youtube preferences, to reminding you of your partner’s birthday and recommending restaurants and movies – the time is coming when people will willing let computers overtake all the aspects of their lives.
Ultimately of course, it is all about the availability of information and the speed with which any agent can process, absorb and adjust to the information received – From Literature to Biterature details this process down to its evolutionary (or techno-evolutionary) roots. And again, it is something Lem was concerned with half a century ago. Interestingly, for all of his scepticism, Lem’s epistemic system has an interesting twist: he predicted how developments in computer sciences will bring about an overabundance of information which will ultimately leave us paralyzed.
From the political point of view – where ‘political’ is meant to include anything from internal organization of a country and its foreign policies to subjective ambitions of those who have the power and do not want to give it up – the excess of information and their availability makes demand for a merciless epistemic paternalism and information control. While such carefully planted notions as terrorism, child pornography and human trafficking – all without a doubt serious threats to the well being of our society – helped justify the widespread use of surveillance techniques and implementation of espionage acts, it was the Snowden affair, by now turned into a Hollywood blockbuster, that made everyone aware of the fact that, sadly, 1984 is a pale image of the world we actually live in.
While the whole world might look with dismay at China and its love-hate relationship with Google, situation isn’t that much better in the rest of the world, despite the appearances. When sciences come hand in hand with politics, ignorance is not only intentionally created and sustained, but is used as a political instrument. Or so argues scientists Robert Proctor, who went out of his way to show that, even when the sciences get it right, by the time the truth reaches the public, it does so in a form of a sexy cowboy.
Politically orchestrated forms of denialisms – such as a denial about the harms of cigarettes – often get into the public sphere and influence public opinions. In what seems like a scene from Lem’s The Futurological Congress, the world now stands at the verge of the greatest environmental crisis that will submerge parts of our continents for good. Some are of course doubtful. Not so much because of the lack of scientific consensus on the topic, but more so because of the way that watching over environment slows down some of the multinational companies which pour money into political campaigns. So when a snowball tossed over the Senate floor is meant to submerge the scientific evidence on global warming, you know it’s time to pack your bags and go. Luckily, the space is now opening up.
An equally disturbing aspect of our current roads to knowledge is that, in addition to the sciences not always being value-free but occasionally agenda-driven, the media is no better, as the ‘left’ and ‘right’ etiquettes are just as applicable to newspapers and television networks as they are to political parties. There are no independent sources of information, as majority of sources on offer meticulously filter the information and present them neatly packed into an interpretation that serves best their preferred political agenda.
On the other hand, the public itself became lazy in searching for reliable sources and opt rather to go to those sources that do not clash with their political views. Needless to point out, there are also various PR agencies, whose job description includes everything from staging smoke and mirrors to convincing the public that Elvis is or is not still alive. With their capacity to turn every lie into a fact, catapult every anonymous into a star, crush every star into dust, searching for reliable information is like searching for a needle in a stack of needles.
In addition to being ‘unsafe’ (as epistemologists would put it, which means it is just too easy to get it wrong), our sources also come at a high price: the loss of privacy. The only way in which our countries can be protected, we are told, is to monitor everyone, everywhere, all the time. WikiLeaks is now into its eleventh year of tirelessly disclosing information which reveals how men behind the curtains monitor our daily lives, all in the name of protection. Through the revelations made by whistleblowers, from Thomas Drake and Chelsea Manning to Julian Assange and Edward Snowden, we get to understand the extent to which control of information translates into social and economic control of a handful few over the masses. The presidential campaign of Barak Obama was largely based on his promise – the one he has yet to fulfil despite the fact that his days in the Office are over – that he will end the rampaging surveillance of citizens. One of the central aspects of a recent ‘the’ campaign was the ‘leaking emails’ controversy that reminded people that money makes the world go round whether you use it to finance suicidal bombers or presidential candidates. Or both. Or so some say. It’s hard to tell.
Putting politics aside, mostly because Lem and Orwell said it all, it is bio-technology that is going to be the end of the world as we know it. From computers that write poetry and compose music, robots that speak and process emotions, people who defy dying by switching from one body to the other or learn new language by popping pills, to genetically modified individuals and individuals who are half humans half artificial intelligence (or something), from personal communication replaced by handbags to a burger grown in a laboratory – when it comes to breaching what is (or once was) natural, you name it, Lem’s got it.
And now, we got it too, or are incredibly close to getting it. We already have a computer-written poetry, computer-composed music and computer-painted visual art, as documented in Swirski’s Biterature – a book which is, together with the concluding chapters of Stanislaw Lem, Philosopher of the Future a great road map into the technological new world. While on the whole rather optimistic about humanity’s prospects of surviving the clash of cultures that will emerge once the computers develop consciousness (or something like it), Swirski is convinced they will go on minding their own business and creating their own ways of living, which we will not be capable of understanding. Or even registering, given the speed with which AI can modify itself. Claiming that the decision to attribute rights to computers will be a pragmatic one, rather than one based on clearly defined definition of what consciousness is, Swirski bases his arguments on, among others, the fact that there already are cases for which we have no explanation – the 2012 Knight Capital Incident is notorious, when the trading software got out of control, causing the loss of $440 millions.
Those more optimistic about man’s ability to control the algorithms, programmes and codes behind AI will find faults with Swirski – the fact that programmers can’t explain why the software went haywire doesn’t necessarily imply that the software has a mind of its own; it just might be that we need programmers with better minds. Whether he got it right or wrong however, he is not alone in predicting a new area for humanity. “In the not-too-distant future, Genius Machines will walk among us. They will be smart, kind, and wise. Together, man and machine will create a better future for the world!” yells David Hanson, the founder and the CEO of Hanson Robotics (http://www.hansonrobotics.com).
Another optimistic figure regarding digital technologies and their impact on our daily practices, particularly the media and entertainment is Nicholas Negroponte, the founder and Chairman Emeritus of Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Media Lab. A call for merging humans and robots has been repeatedly issued by various post-humanist and trans-humanist movements, mostly in the name of enhancing our biologically given capacities. Immortality is right down the corner, or, at this point, in the freezers of agencies such as Alcor Life Extension – all for the minimum of $200,000.00, as advertised on their web page.
For us today, the gap between the far away of Lem’s fiction and the here and now is slowly, but inevitably closing. We just might be the last generation that lives in a world where one actually needs to study in order to know, fall in love in order to feel love, kill a cow in order to eat a burger. From the fact that we took evolution in our hands, to the fact that we can tinker with our DNA so as to come up with disease-free babies designed in accordance with their parents’ preferences, to the fact that we can even substitute parts of our bodies with those created by nanotechnology, intrusions into ‘human nature’ are happening more rapidly than ever. And with every new day, new options are coming our way. The inherent desire of humans to enhance themselves and acquire a God-like ability for creation is now, for the first time in history, within our reach.
A devil's advocate
Subscribing fully to his idea that literature is a source of knowledge, Swirski doesn’t shy away from poking Lem with critical sticks. When one subjects one’s fiction to cognitive aims, rampages Swirski more than once,one has to keep one’s imagination in check. This kind of critical attitude got us, in our joint project in Lemography, to hold Lem accountable for several factual errors he made regarding demographical predications and architectural solutions. It was however our conclusion that high philosophical valence beats bad math. Take it from Lem, we said, and think twice before you cheer to the prospects of immortality (or the road we have to take to get there).
The same critical attitude that got us debating Lem’s factual blunders got Swirski to debate writer’s conceptual ones, developing along the way his views on AI. This, in turn, got me (and no doubt many others) to debate Swirski’s arguments. This Ion-like chain of inspiration, intellectual rather than artistic, has been driving the progress in the humanities and the sciences since down of time. It is high time to recognize – and hopefully, this little piece is a step in that direction – that literature too can inspire this kind of intellectual progress.
However, just to play the role of a devil’s advocate, I will claim that Lem’s epistemic project of using fiction as an instrument of knowledge is marred not so much by what he put in his fictional worlds but by things he left out of them: religion and women.
Given how gigantic and undiscriminatory Lem’s intellectual interest in the world was, it is puzzling that a force as influential and powerful as religion is almost entirely absent. And given how dominant religion is in tailoring our social, political, medical and scientific space – those sceptical of its power to add up to our already destructive behaviour can once again turn to Swirski’s Utopia – it is most unfortunate that Lem ignored it to the extent that he did. Could it be that he thought that, with accumulation of scientific knowledge, humans would overcome their need for deity? Whatever his reasons, on a daily basis, it is harder and harder to confine religion to a faith in a supreme Deity and see it as a source of ethical guidance. If anything, it is easier to see it poking at that aggressive part of us that Lem so abhorred. With the sweet allure of the eternal life, or the 72 virgins, all the science on offer isn’t enough to convince some that it all started with the big bang.
Lem was of course aware of the empty spots, as testified in his interview with Swirski. Asked about the lack of ladies, he claimed it was a choice dictated by “specific narrative requirements.” He considered introduction of women an “unnecessary complication” that would make a demand to pursue some kind of “sexual, erotic, emotional” narrative conclusion. To put it simply, it is a man’s world, and with “the number of female geniuses (...) certainly nowhere near the number of males”, Lem saw no significant spot for them to fulfil – other than that of plain villains. On Swirski’s hypothesis, the lack of females in Lem’s fiction is an outcome of the insignificant role that Lem’s mother had in his life, particularly when compared to that of his father.
On the whole however, trying to salvage social and psychological realism in his fiction by ignoring, on the latest estimates, 49, 6% of the population that makes the very reality we live in, is a bad trade no matter how you explain it. You can’t have complication-free narration representing complication-ridden world without shaking your epistemic foundations to some extent. When you put men and women together, you are indeed bound to have some sort of sexual, emotional and erotic activities going on – after all, without ‘love’, where would we be now? – but there is more to men and women being together (or trying to come together) than just exchange of physical fluids.
Erasing women from the equation is detrimental for Lem’s prognostics as it disables him from seriously considering the role that emotional patterns have for how people come together. For all of his insightfulness and curiosity in handling the metaphysical problems regarding our identity, our rationality and the conditions of being human (as opposed to being a machine), Lem should have been more open to the role of sexual urges in our lives. Never before was humanity as obsessed with youth and beauty as it is today and a desire to escape the forces of gravity and retain aesthetically inviting figure is a driving force behind many of contemporary scientific researches. Add to that the absurd level of fame that aesthetically pleasing/epistemologically distasteful socialites enjoy in our society and it is easy to see why the future is more about the looks than it is about the brains.
Case in point. Ironically perhaps, but as Lem himself almost derisively comments in Thirty Years Later, researches into AI partly at least blossomed due to the possibility of having sex with computers, or, at this point, Japanese dolls which are, according to advertisement, almost undistinguishable from the real thing. Adding another chapter to the configuration of the commonplace, futurologists today are rather confident that in days to come, a lot of sexual, emotional and erotic activities will be taking place between people and various forms of AI. This raises multiple questions – suspiciously absent from Lem’s oeuvre – regarding the way our emotional needs underlie our daily activities and social institutions and arrangements. Various instances of gay and LGTB movements have for quite some time been a very powerful factor in shaping our understanding of gender, sex and our biologically determined identity, not to mention the role they played in political, sociological and ethical debates regarding human rights and the institution of marriage and family. Lem’s claim that he was ‘interested in humanity generally, not in its particular instances’ seems like a lame excuse.
Even sans analyzing the role of Margaret Thatcher or Angela Merkel in political landscape of the world as we know it, one doesn’t have to be a genius (as Lem undoubtedly was) to realize why our collective future cannot be painted if we take men to stand for humanity generally. Even in domain of science, women are not all that insignificant as one might think on the basis of Lem’s comment – which, nota bene, only reinforces the status quo that seeks to chain women to their ovens rather than to the microscopes. As I am writing this, the scientific community is saying good bye to Vera Rubin, one of the most significant researcher ever in the field of astrophysics. While one swallow doesn’t make for the summer, it is not at all implausible to find faults with Lem’s derisive treatment of women – more so in his commentary I believe then in his works, as an author might be entitled to his artistic choices no matter how misogynist they seem.
For those less convinced of the need to take women, or the lack of them seriously, recent demographic predictions should offer clues as to why the future of our world will to a great extent depend on men to women ratio. An example that most easily comes to mind is China, where, after a prolonged period of one child policy coupled by ‘preference’ for a son, Chinese male youth is facing significant difficulties in finding partners. Similar issues bother citizens of countries such as Qatar or United Arab Emirates. What is worrisome with respect to this is the fact that demography comes hand in hand with economy and economy, as everyone knows, cannot be separated from politics. Add to that another worrying statistical trend – the fact that developed countries are rapidly growing old while undeveloped are getting younger and are by far outnumbering those in the first group – and suddenly you are looking at the future in which human aggression will be triggered by a whole new set of factors – precisely those that Lem opted to ignore.
Last words on the topic
Claiming that he relied on his own philosophical hunch rather than on any particular philosopher he (dis)liked, Lem argued that eventually, technologies will push philosophy out of the arena of knowledge. Today, when it is harder than ever to find the place for philosophy within either of the ‘two cultures’, his prognosis on philosophy’s future seems more than ever a case in point. Philosophy stagnates and the sciences progress, and now that technology is in charge of our future evolution, it is safe to say that philosophy lost its final battlefield – that of accounting for the ways of men.
However, Lem might have been too rush here; philosophy shouldn’t give up just yet. For one thing, philosophy comes hand in hand with literature, and cancelation of one would inevitably lead to the cancelation of the other. For all of their (alleged) differences, literature and philosophy both address human experience and if philosophy can no longer address these issues, it is doubtful whether literature could. In other words, if technology could in fact answer all of our questions, it is highly doubtful if it would still be ‘we’ who is asking them.
More importantly, technology might have invaded the area of philosophy but it hasn’t acquired philosophy’s predominantly interrogative attitude towards the world. Technology enables us to merge humans and computers but it still remains silent on who, or what, that creation is, what rights (if any) it has and how does it go about (if it does) thinking about itself. Bottom line, there is no reason to think that, just because sciences and technologies have reached a level at which they have enabled humans to create a whole new world, the need for philosophy has vanished, or that the impulse to do philosophy became obsolete. Traditional philosophical questions – who are we, where are we heading, what do we know, what should we do – are still around, even if the context within which we are asking them change. That is one conclusive lesson from Swirski.
No doubt, in years to come, years which even the greatest optimists can hardly envision as the Age of Aquarius, philosophy will have to become much more active in solving the actual problems of humanity – environmental crisis, the ethical conundrums opened up by various kinds of nano-technological interventions into living creatures, ontological, epistemological and aesthetic inquiries into who we are and how we perceive the world and make sense of our experience. After all, philosophy is the oldest, most abstract and most fundamental intellectual inquiry humans are capable of. The contours of the new world, which Lem painted with so much precision and accuracy, testify how significant role philosophy will have in that world. You don’t trust me? Read Lem. And read Swirski. Or the other way around. Whichever way you do it, just do it.