Stanislaw Lem: Skeptic, Iconoclast, Materialist

“Each of us is aware he’s a material being, subject to the laws of physiology and physics, and that the strength of all our emotions combined cannot counteract those laws.  It can only hate them.  The eternal belief of lovers and poets in the power of love which is more enduring than death, the finis vitae sed non amoris that has pursued us through the centuries is a lie.  But this lie is not ridiculous, it’s simply futile.  To be a clock on the other hand, measuring the passage of time, one that is smashed and rebuilt over and again, one in whose mechanism despair and love are set in motion by the watchmaker along with the first movements of the cogs.  To know one is a repeater of suffering felt ever more deeply as it becomes increasingly comical through a multiple repetitions.  To replay human existence – fine.  But to replay it in the way a drunk replays a corny tune pushing coins over and over into the jukebox?”

            – Stanislaw Lem, Solaris

In a 1992 interview with Peter Swirski, Stanislaw Lem commented that, if he were to state his philosophical affiliation in terms of the “accepted nomenclature,” he would rank himself “in a large measure with the skeptics” (Stanislaw Lem Reader 42). In the same context, Lem expressed his irreverence for the natural sciences – an irreverence matched, however, by his dismissal of various religious and philosophical belief systems. Lem further characterized himself as “a kind of wide-ranging heretic”. Although he contended that it is not possible “to prove solipsism false”, he affirmed the mind-independent reality of the external world.1

Lem tells us in an interview that he never had the urge to “speak my piece” to the world at large, “as far as philosophy goes. Perhaps this disinclination comes from my conviction that the time of crafting seamless, unified philosophical systems is long past. This is so, I claim, because the results of the new “hard” sciences, led by physics, begin to exceed the abilities of reasoning — the various events and descriptions of states which fly in the face of visual perception as well as any other human sense or intuition, all that stuff conjured by the human mind”. Another in a long line of anti-philosophical writers Lem adds “if the scientific results exceed the horizons of human intellectual comprehension, then human philosophy must be left behind, limiting itself to reflection on the way the world is thoroughly known to us as a niche for a certain thinking species or to considerations of the human position in this world, its correctness and dangers.” How sad the wit of such a writer fell into his own pessimism. Maybe Schopenhauer was right after all: “Every man takes the limits of his own field of vision for the limits of the world.”

He reflects on the reasons he undertook the writing of Solaris: “My answers may lead to entirely false conclusions: say, that before writing anything I spent time considering its problematic — say, that before writing Solaris, I intended to write about the futile attempts of human contact with an alien phenomenon, attempts that end in a spectacular crash of anthropocentrism after the depiction of many adventures and sufferings of the protagonists.” In an extensive discourse on the process of writing, which I found fascinating, he tells us:

“When I write, the process of writing has nothing in common with building a house, a bottom-up activity based on a top-down design (involving architects, investors, builders, and workers). Both the structure of the plot and the adventures of the characters come into being as I write. The initial state of the book is but a nebulous, extremely loose bunch of ideas. The final state — after the writing is done — is still a nebulous, rather loose bunch of ideas, albeit markedly less nebulous and less loose. Nevertheless, this uncertainty never totally shrinks away. For example, even then, I have no clue as to the worth of the new work. I do not know how it will be read and understood by its various readers, whether they will be bored or thrilled. Usually, all my books are first read by my wife, and very often I have gone along with her (highly critical) remarks. It has also often happened that I would not agree with her: for example, when she considered my descriptions of the library in Solaris as spurious. In other works, occasionally I had an inner certitude that the text had to remain in its initial form. I cannot explain that feeling and whence it comes.

What may be even more surprising (if not downright paradoxical sounding), this was the way in which I wrote my discursive prose as well: no projects, no blueprints. If a priori plans were needed, it often turned out they weren’t kept. It was as though I was carried away by the current of my thought as I was writing the text — the sort of thing that happens to white water rafters: keeping the course and not really managing to do so. Basically, I wrote by trial and error, and since I never cross out anything, instead throwing away in its entirety what does not please me, I see myself as a high-jumper, making attempts at a height, one after another, each a contained procedure, including the initial run. It is impossible to pause in the air over the crossbar in order to make an adjustment.

I usually write both “horizontally” and “vertically”. That is, the initial linear plot picks up new ideas, thus widening. Then I have to make over entire chapters, or more. Often, when I am having trouble striking the right tone or keeping the style I want, I start “randomly”, aware that in the final tally I can get rid of the beginning altogether or replace it with some other. I did that with The Scene of the Crime, where the first chapter had over ten variants. I threw them all out and wrote “In Switzerland” as its first chapter — admittedly, when the book wasn’t completed yet, but when I had already grasped all of it. The same applies to the serious/grotesque modal axis (and similar choices). A modality such as that comes to be during the process of writing, and I have often switched after making an initial choice, like a composer switching to a different key.”

Paisley Livingston tells us that while Lem takes skeptical hypotheses seriously enough to mobilize them in various fictions, he is not really to be taken at his word when he declares himself a skeptic, as his more basic epistemological inclination is a kind of fallibilism. If it is granted that a scenario based on a distinction between perceptual input and autonomous doxastic agency – i.e., a capacity to guide one’s own thinking – is coherent, as Lem seems to allow, his response is to retreat to a “low standards” account of knowledge that blocks the skeptical inference. Scientific knowledge, construed as the systematic pursuit of justified belief, is Lem’s preferred strategy. On the other hand, such a move entails that there is no refutation of radical skepticism about our knowledge of the external world, and hence no strong, “high standards” claims to knowledge ( SL 127-128).

If a common fate of generalizations in science is their eventual revision, should we reject the idea that there is scientific knowledge at all? Even the incomparable Sir Isaac Newton, as he was called, was shown to be mistaken on some important points. Even if discovering this took centuries, is there good reason to believe that any other scientific generalizations are, strictly speaking, true, in the sense that they describe the world both correctly and timelessly, and apply to past, present, and future? If some are true, that may not be typical. Commonly, what we call scientific knowledge is regarded by scientists as needing refinement and as possibly mistaken. Quite properly, their attitude is fallibilistic.

If scientists accept fallibilism regarding scientific beliefs—the view that these beliefs may be mistaken and the accompanying rejection of dogmatic attitudes—they nonetheless tend to hold a kind of objectivism: the view that there is an objective method for ascertaining whether beliefs about the world are true, that is (roughly speaking), a method which can be used by any competent investigator and tends to yield the same results when properly applied by different competent investigators to the same problem. Scientific method is widely taken by scientists and philosophers alike to be a paradigm of an objective method.

One can insist that what is not precisely true is not known. But we could also say that what is approximately true in the scientific domain may be an object of approximate knowledge, and that beliefs of such propositions both are fallible and should be held with an openness to their revision in the light of new discoveries. I prefer the latter way of speaking. Why must we say it is false, rather than approximately true, that the circumference of a circle is its diameter times 3.1416, simply because pi can be worked out so much further? Indeed, given that pi can be carried out infinitely, how could we ever truly state the circumference of a circle if only absolutely precise propositions can be true?

There is, however, a second way to account for the apparent falsity of certain scientific generalizations. It seems that often their formulations are not properly taken to be absolutely precise, and that, rightly interpreted, they are true within the appropriate limits. Consider the general law that metals are conductors of electricity. Perhaps this should be interpreted with the understanding that certain abnormal (or for practical purposes impossible) conditions do not obtain. If metals should fail to conduct electricity at absolute zero, would this show the generalization false or simply that its appropriate scope of application is limited? The latter view seems more plausible.

These points in defense of scientific generalizations against the charge of wholesale falsity do not imply that none of those generalizations can be shown to be simply false. The point is that in some cases, instead of saying that scientific generalizations are not really true and hence do not represent genuine knowledge, it is preferable to speak either of approximate knowledge of a precisely formulated, but only approximately true, generalization or, as in this case, of unqualified knowledge of an imprecisely formulated truth. The difference is roughly that between approximate knowledge and knowledge of an approximation. In practice, however, there may be no easy way to decide which, if either, of these cases one is confronted with, or which indicates the better way to represent the state of one’s knowledge in a given scientific area.2

As for epistemic claims of knowledge and justification Lem was a little leary. He once said that “values as such cannot be derived from anywhere, hence knowledge cannot be of any help to us. According to modern concepts, which I follow as a member of the “order of empiricists“, people’s noble deeds, along with all others, have been programmed genetically. Essential values can be derived from the biological cocoon shaped by the evolution; the latter can be proven mathematically. I will state this matter plainly: if there are two species of social beings and egoism  is dominant in one of them, while the other shows a more altruistic susceptibility, probability shows that the second species has a much higher chance of collective survival. This norm has been forced into various ethical codes that postulate various  kinds of altruistic behavior. Later this code has been unintentionally deprived of its evolutionary roots and turned into religious doctrines. However from the evolutionary point of view this is only the result of selection mechanisms that have been active for hundreds of millions of years. I do not claim that there is only one source of ethics, but undoubtedly one can look for it in a very distant past. One can also search for other justifications, avoiding the ancient, biological and purely Darwinian ones. Those, who – as humanists – study the natural duties and laws of man, unintentionally close their eyes; they are unaware of the fact that the distinctness of man in terms of categories  that they establish, is purely fictional, since its roots lie well within the pre-reason times. There is nothing we can do about it. I am obviously aware that humanity is not particularly happy about this issue. Personally, although I  am a non-believer, I would prefer it to be otherwise, even though I cannot justify this urge in rational terms. However I do not feel justified to reject a certain factography just because it disagrees with my noble intentions and respect I have for others and myself. This is quite sad, indeed. (interview).

Skeptic, ironist, empiricist, nihilist, pessimist…. whatever name you throw his way Lem was above all an indefatigable creature of enlightenment, a philosophe and satirist after Voltaire, Diderot, and Swift. Curious, alive, and full of that expansive passion that energizes his life and writings.

1. Swirski, Peter. The Art and Science of Stanislaw Lem (p. 117). (Ingram Distribution 2006)

2. Audi, Robert (2010-10-06). Epistemology: A Contemporary Introduction to the Theory of Knowledge, Third Edition (Routledge Contemporary Introductions to Philosophy). Taylor & Francis.

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