A philosophy of first contact : Stanisław Lem and the myth of cognitive universality

Název: A philosophy of first contact : Stanisław Lem and the myth of cognitive universality
Zdrojový dokument: Pro-Fil. 2021, roč. 22, č. Special issue, s. 65-77
  • ISSN
    1212-9097 (online)
Type: Článek

Upozornění: Tyto citace jsou generovány automaticky. Nemusí být zcela správně podle citačních pravidel.

Within science fiction the topic of 'first contact' is a popular theme. How will an encounter with aliens unfold? Will we succeed in communicating with them? Although such questions are present in the background of many science fiction novels, they are not always explicitly dealt with and even if so, often in a poor way. In this article, I will introduce a typology of five dominant types of solutions to the problem of first contact in science fiction works. The first four solutions are the more dominant, but also the least interesting ones. There is a fifth category that addresses the question of first contact in a more interesting way, exemplified by the work of Stanisław Lem. This fifth option defines itself as a critique of the four previous categories, or of their shared assumption of what Lem (1967) has called 'the myth of cognitive universality'. Lem is sceptical of the common optimism that first contact will always be successful. In books such as Solaris (1961), His Master's Voice (1967) and Fiasco (1986), humanity makes first contact with an alien phenomenon, but fails to comprehend the phenomenon. Fundamentally, it will be argued that Lem's work shows that in such an encounter we will typically not only lack the right answers to our questions, but that we also often lack the correct questions: we simply do not have the right categories or instruments to even recognize, let alone meaningfully interrogate, the alien phenomenon. The article ends with an exploration of the implications of Lem's pessimism and whether it is the most plausible option for first contact. Moreover, the article will draw some lessons for philosophy of science, by exploring the parallel with the confrontation of novel or deviant phenomena in science. Lem's work is helpful here because it succeeds in articulating what has not always been appreciated in the philosophy of science, namely that the right questions by which to interrogate scientific phenomena are not given, but that their articulation always requires work.
Research for this article was made possible by the Research Foundation – Flanders (FWO). A previous version of this article was presented at the UWE Philosophy Visiting Speaker Series in Bristol on 18 April 2018. This paper was also inspired by parts of my dissertation, The Raven and the Trojan Horse: Constructing Nature in Synthetic Biology (KU Leu-ven, 2019).
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