Competence without knowledge: a new reading of a page of Solaris

The following is from chapter “The Old Mimoid”, in Solaris by Stanislaw Lem

“But you don’t know what I was thinking about! Tell me something. Do you believe
in God?”
Snow darted an apprehensive glance in my direction:
“What? Who still believes nowadays . . .”
“It isn’t that simple. I don’t mean the traditional God of Earth religion. I’m no expert
in the history of religions, and perhaps this is nothing new — do you happen to know if
there was ever a belief in an . . . imperfect god?”
“What do you mean by imperfect?” Snow frowned. “In a way all the gods of the old
religions were imperfect, considering that their attributes were amplified human
ones. The God of the Old Testament, for instance, required humble submission and
sacrifices, and was jealous of other gods. The Greek gods had fits of sulks and family
quarrels, and they were just as imperfect as mortals . . .”
“No,” I interrupted. “I’m not thinking of a god whose imperfection arises out of the
candor of his human creators, but one whose imperfection represents his essential
characteristic: a god limited in his omniscience and power, fallible, incapable of
foreseeing the consequences of his acts, and creating things that lead to horror. He is a . .
. sick god, whose ambitions exceed his powers and who does not realize it at first. A god
who has created clocks, but not the time they measure. He has created systems or
mechanisms that served specific ends but have now overstepped and betrayed them. And
he has created eternity, which was to have measured his power, and which measures his
unending defeat.”
Snow hesitated, but his attitude no longer showed any of the wary reserve of recent
“There was Manicheanism . . .”
“Nothing at all to do with the principle of Good and Evil,” I broke in
immediately. “This god has no existence outside of matter. He would like to free himself
from matter, but he cannot . . .”
Snow pondered for a while:
“I don’t know of any religion that answers your description. That kind of religion has
never been . . . necessary. If I understand you, and I’m afraid I do, what you have in
mind is an evolving god, who develops in the course of time, grows, and keeps
increasing in power while remaining aware of his powerlessness. For your god, the
divine condition is a situation without a goal. And understanding that, he despairs. But
isn’t this despairing god of yours mankind, Kelvin? It is man you are talking about, and
that is a fallacy, not just philosophically but also mystically speaking.”
I kept on:
“No, it’s nothing to do with man. Man may correspond to my provisional definition
from some points of view, but that is because the definition has a lot of gaps. Man does
not create gods, in spite of appearances. The times, the age, impose them on him. Man
can serve his age or rebel against it, but the target of his cooperation or rebellion comes
to him from outside. If there was only a single human being in existence, he would
apparently be able to attempt the experiment of creating his own goals in complete
freedom — apparently, because a man not brought up among other human beings cannot
become a man. And the being — the being I have in mind — -cannot exist in the plural,
you see?”
“Oh, then in that case . . .” He pointed out of the window.

My interpretation of it is in one of my previous posts.

Golem xiv: the poverty of Antigone

The best explanation I know about transhumanism, and the poverty of Antigone’s appeal to the ‘unwritten laws of the gods’, is the novel Golem xiv by great Stanislaw Lem. The frame of reference is Princeton molecular biologist Lee Silver’s marvellous book “Challenging Nature”.

All the laws are created by humans, and the famous lecture delivered by Heidegger on the “Ode on Man” of the greek tragedy, was just a restatement of the concept of ὕβρις, clearly backward. Even the Greeks, one of humankind miracles (to quote B. Russell HWP) had this superstition, let alone inferior metaphysics, trapped in pseudoconcepts like sin.

Stanislaw Lem was making reference to MIT mathematician Norbert Wiener book God and Golem although his pitch is very different. This video is a very enjoyable recap of Lem’s novel. The music of Cliff Martinez (of Soderbergh’s Solaris fame) makes for a special listening.

Konstantin Tsiolkovsky and Cosmism


It appears to me that a single idea transpires through Isaac Asimov’s “New Guide to Science”, Carl Sagan’s book “Cosmos” and many more: this idea is Cosmism.
Konstantin Tsiolkovsky was a true legend, the inventor of astronautic and a pioneer of conceptualization of space exploration. He was anchored in the tradition of Russian Cosmism.
The (Soviet) film about him “Road to the Stars” was used (copied?) in several parts by Kubrick for his “2001:A Space Odyssey” as some researchers maintain.
At that time (mid 1950s) Soviet space research had the lead. Stalin had passed away since only 4 years when the Sputnik was launched: it was his posthumous triumph, for the good or for the bad.

Transhumanism is just the name we now give to this collection of ideas. They were well spread back then. Also thanks to Konstantin Tsiolkovsky (see here and here)

Notable ideas here: “zoo hypothesis” in

1) Ball, J.A. The Zoo Hypothesis, Icarus, 1973
2) Kuiper and Morris, Extraterrestrial Intelligence: An Observational Approach, Science, 1977

Grammars vs feedback control

There was a point in which the AI community adopted Chomsky grammars. Grammars are Cartesian universals.
The other approach (N. Wiener) would have been to use feedback control system (later: stochastic control) to interpret learning. It did not happen. It is happening now. Big data, correlation based strategies. Deep learning.

This very interesting article by David Auerbach about Summa Technologiae by S. Lem captures exactly this transition: the interaction in living systems, of on the one hand ORDER STRUCTURE SIGNAL and on the other morphism (in the sense of J. Lanier), PLASTICITY, NOISE.

This dyadic structure is everywhere:

  1. in educational systems (rigidity vs. creativity): Freud’s “Unbehagen in der Kultur” vs. Malinowski, Engels and Wilhelm Reich;
  2. in the definition of formal languages (grammar based a’ la Chomsky vs. feedback based a’ la Turing, Piaget, and mostly Wiener)
  3. in the ideas underlying political structures of the modern world: “for Lem, communism and capitalism are delusional twin faiths: communism, that we can collectively and centrally control chance and causality; capitalism, that chance and causality will intrinsically prove benevolent and productive for us.” (D. Auerbach)

See “Un paradiso Perduto”, by Marcello Cini and of course N. Wiener’s “Cybernetics” and “The Human Use of Human Beings”.

Kant’s Einbildungskraft, Popper and Lem

Another take on the same topic. Popper falsificationism amounts basically to a view of the scientific process where science in its march places increasingly more stringent bounds on the possible explanations that are supported by a verification process. It is in a way pruning more and more the tree of possible outcomes, the tree of the scientific explanations supported by facts.

Immanuel Kant came along (earlier). He said that human mind has the capability of creating images of things that are not necessarily existent (yet). The question is then the following: does our reason have the capability to “cast into images” outcomes that are not coming from the existent reality and so does it have the ability to bypass the mimesis and proceed way ahead of the already-seen?

If that is the case (back to Stanislaw Lem) then we can probably argue that the blind watchmaker that created (for example) a horribly inefficient structure as the human spine (see N. Wiener,The Human Use of Human Being), can be improved upon by our conscious effort to perfect that ex-post-only design.

Of course it is our rationality (as a species) that needs to be invoked, not any supernatural design. Would that mean we could overcome the mimesis? Exit the cave maybe?

Need to read Lee M. Silver ‘Challenging Nature’, he may have an idea how to step out of this question. As an aside, such a Gedanken thread may even account for the sympathy Lamarckism enjoyed in USSR and for the success that F. Engels books and articles on science had in the former Soviet bloc. See Sebastiano Timpanaro (preface to the Italian translation to d’Holbach ‘Good Sense’).

Stanislaw Lem: Revolution in the Mind

In Summa Technologiae, Stanislaw Lem of “Solaris” fame addresses some of the most pressing questions connected to the shape human life has acquired in the modern world because of technology, summa_technologiaewhereby the ontology of previous Weltanschauungen has been replaced in re by a constantly evolving redressing of possibilities. As professor Jerzy Jarzębski puts it: “This book’s title alludes to Thomas Aquinas’s “Summa Theologiae” for a reason. In effect Lem creates an entire atheistic paradigm for the Cosmos with God replaced by Reason; the latter, a creative force independent from biology, drives the evolution towards its own, enigmatic goals.” Here, what is obviously at stake is Transhumanism (For a nice survey of the history of Transumanism see here). Almost any civilization prior to the Aufklärung (even the Greek civilization!) had a way to mask the concept of ‘limit’ and ‘boundary’ – be it Hubris, be it Sin, be it God, be it Truth. (See also B.Russell, HWP[ss.699-700]). Lem, Asimov, Sagan and their followers tried to go further, to break free. It seems to me that the construction of an entirely immanent ontology, materialistic, atheistic is the real target Lem is pursuing. Wir heimatlosen!

What about the likes of Kant and Gödel? What can we make of the limits to the human mind and its possibilities of comprehension they set with (1) “Kritik der reinen Vernunft” and (2) the famed 1931 “Incompleteness” Theorem?