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The Star Diaries: The Twenty-First Voyage

An excerpt from the story “The Twenty-First Voyage” by Stanislaw Lem (part of The Star Diaries).

(The narrator, Ijon Tichy, travels to a world inhabited by an advanced—transhuman—civilization, now in seeming ruins. There he meets an underground—literally—order of robot monks, who welcome him readily, give him shelter, and converse with him on theology and on the planet's history. Tichy inquires, after much discussion, what purpose there is in the robots' monastic life—why they stay in the sewers and tunnels they inhabit…)

“And what exactly, in your opinion, should we be doing?”

“What do you mean? There’s always missionary work…”

“Then you still understand nothing! You are as far from me now as you were at the moment of your first appearance!” the prior said with sorrow. “So you think we ought to occupy ourselves with the spreading of the faith? With missionary work? To evangelize? Make converts?”

“And you, Father, do not? How is that possible? Has this not been your mission throughout the ages?” I asked, astonished.

“On Dichotica,” said the prior, “a million things are possible, things of which you have no knowledge. In one simple step we can erase the contents of a person’s memory and feed into that thereby vacant mind a new, synthetic memory, such that it will appear to the subject that he has lived what he has not, experienced what he has not; in short, we can make him Someone Other than he was before the operation. We can change character and personality, transform lecherous brutes into mild samaritans and vice versa; atheists into saints and ascetics into sensualists; we can dull the wise, and the dull turn into geniuses; you must realize that all of this is very easy and nothing MATERIAL stands in the way of such conversions. And now give close heed to what I tell you.

“Yielding to the arguments of our preachers, a hidebound atheist might believe. Let us suppose that such silver-tongued emissaries from our order do convert various persons. The end state of these missionary measures would be such, that as a result of the changes taken place in those minds people who previously did not believe would now believe. This is clear, I think?”

I nodded.

“Good. And now observe that those persons will in matters of faith entertain new convictions, since by providing them with information through the medium of inspired words and evangelistic gestures we have in a certain manner influenced their brains. Now this end state—of brains infused with ardent faith and the longing for God—may be achieved a million times more quickly, and more reliably too, by the application of a suitably selected range of biotic agents. Why then should we proselytize in the old-fashioned way, through persuasion, sermons, lectures, exhortations, when we have more modern means at our disposal?”

“Surely you aren’t serious, Father!” I cried. “That would be—well—unethical!”

The prior shrugged.

“You speak thus, for you are a child of another age. No doubt you think that we would act coercively, by the underhanded tactic of ‘cryptoconversion,’ secretly sowing some sort of chemical or using certain waves or vibrations to reshape the mind. But it is not that way at all! At one time disputes would take place between believers and nonbelievers, and the only instrument, the only weapon used then was the verbal force of the argument of either side (I am not speaking of those ‘disputes’ in which the argument consisted of the stake, the block or the rack). Nowadays an analogous dispute would take place with technological methods of argumentation. We would act with instruments of conversion, and our hardened opponents would counter with methods designed to pattern us after their ideal, or at least to make themselves impervious to that form of evangelization. For either side the chance of winning would depend on the effectiveness of the technology employed, just as—long ago—the chance of victory in a dispute depended on the effectiveness of one’s verbal address. For conversion is nothing more or less than the conveying of faith-compelling information.”

“Even so,” I insisted, “such conversion wouldn’t be authentic! After all, a drug that produces the thirst for faith, the craving for God, falsifies the mind; it doesn’t appeal to the will, but enslaves it, violates it!”

“You forget where you are and to whom you speak,” replied the prior. “For six hundred years there has been among us not a single ‘natural’ mind. Thus it is impossible, among us, to distinguish between a thought spontaneous and a thought imposed, since no one need secretly impose a thought on anyone else, in order to convince him. What is imposed is something which comes first and at the same time has finality: the brain!”

“But that imposed brain too possesses an integrity of logic!” I said.

“True. Nevertheless the equating of bygone and current disputes about God would cease to have foundation only if, in support of faith, there existed a proof logically incontrovertible, forcing the mind to accept its conclusion with a power equal to that wielded by mathematics. Yet according to our theodicy no such proof can exist. Thus it is that the history of religion knows apostasies and heresies, but analogous defections are not encountered in the history of mathematics, for no one ever protested the fact that there is one way only to add unity to unity and that the outcome of that operation is the number two. But God you cannot demonstrate with mathematics. I will tell you of something that happened two hundred years ago.

“A certain Computer priest came into conflict with a computer nonbeliever. The latter, being a newer model, had at its disposal means of informational operation unknown to our good Father. So it listened patiently to all his proofs and said: ‘You have informed me, and now I shall inform you, which will not take long—let us then wait that bare millionth of a second for your transfiguration!’ Whereupon in one remote-control flash it informed our priest so thoroughly, that he lost his faith. What say you now?”

“Well, if that was not an act of violation, I don’t know what is!” I exclaimed. “Among us this sort of thing is called mind manipulation.”

“Mind manipulation,” said Father Darg, “means the placing of invisible chains on the spirit in the same way that one can place them visibly on the body. Thoughts are like handwritten letters, and the manipulation of thought is like seizing the hand to make it put down other symbols. This is obvious coercion. But that computer did not act thus. Every proof must be built on facts; to convince by discussion, then, means simply to introduce—through words uttered—facts into the mind of the opponent. The computer did precisely this, though not with words. Therefore from the informational point of view it proceeded no differently than the ordinary debater of the past, the only difference being in the manner of transmission. It was able to do what it did, having the power to see the mind of our priest through and through. ”

“Imagine two chess players, one who can see only the board and the pieces, and one who in addition observes the thoughts of his adversary. The second will unfailingly beat the first, though without doing him violence in any way. What do you think we did with our father when he returned to us?”

“I suppose you fixed him, so that he could believe again…” I said, uncertain.

“No, for he refused. Therefore we could not do this.”

“Now I don’t understand a thing! After all, you would have been acting exactly as that adversary of his, only in reverse!”

“Not at all. Not at all, because our ex-priest had no desire for any further disputations. The concept of a ‘disputation’ has changed and broadened considerably, you realize. He who now enters its lists must be prepared for more than words. Our priest displayed, alas, a most lamentable ignorance and naiveté, for he had been warned, for that other one had told him of its superiority in advance, but he just would not accept the fact that his unshakable faith could capitulate to anything. Theoretically, of course, there does exist a way out of this escalational dilemma: namely, to construct a mind capable of entertaining ALL variations of ALL POSSIBLE facts, but since their class is of transfinite magnitude, only a transfinite mind could achieve metaphysical certainty. Such a mind it is impossible to build. For whatever we build, we build in a finite fashion, and if there exists an infinite computer, it is He and He alone.

“And so at each new level of civilization the debate about God not only may, but must be carried on with new technologies—if it is to be carried on at all. For the informational weaponry has changed ON BOTH SIDES EQUALLY, the situation in the event of battle would be symmetrical and therefore identical to the situation that obtained in the medieval disputes. This new evangelism may be judged immoral only insomuch that you judge immoral the old converting of pagans or the polemics of ancient theologians with atheists. No other mode of missionary work is now possible, for today he who is willing to believe, will believe without fail, and he who has faith and wishes to cast it off, will cast it off without fail—with the help of the appropriate procedures.”

“So is it then possible to affect in turn the faculty of will, producing the desire for faith?” I asked.

“It is indeed. As you know, someone once came up with the dictum that God stands on the side of the strongest battalions. Nowadays, in keeping with the idea of technogenic crusades, He would appear on the side that had the strongest conversional equipment, but we do not consider it our task to enter into this sort of theodicean, religious-antireligious arms race. We do not wish to involve ourselves in the kind of escalation where we develop a proselytizer, and they an antiproselytizer, where we convert, and they controvert, and so on, contending century after century, turning the cloisters into factories of better and better means and tactics to awaken the thirst for faith!”

“How can it be,” I said, “that there is no other road, Father, but this that you are showing me? Do not all minds have the same logic in common? The same natural intelligence?”

“Logic is a tool,” replied the prior, “and a tool alone does nothing. It has to have a point of leverage and a guiding hand, and that leverage and that hand we are able to fashion entirely as we please. And as for natural intelligence, am I, are the friars here, natural? I already told you, we constitute scrap, and our Credo is, to those who first constructed us and then discarded us, a side effect, the jabbering of scrap. We were given freedom of thought, because the industry for which they fashioned us required that. Listen closely. I am now going to reveal to you a secret, a secret I would not reveal to any other. I know that you will leave us soon and not convey it to the authorities; it would cause us untold mischief.

“The brothers of one of the distant orders, who devote themselves to science, discovered a method of exercising such influence on the will and thought, that in a twinkling of an eye we could convert the entire planet, there being no antidote against it. This method neither clouds nor dulls the reason, nor deprives one of one’s freedom, it merely does to the spirit what is done to the sight by a hand that lifts the head skyward and a voice that cries: ‘Behold!’ The sole constraint—coercion—would be that at that moment the eyes could not be closed. This method compels one to look into the face of the Enigma, and he who sees it thus shall nevermore be free of it, for the impression it makes—thanks to this method—is indelible. It would be as if, to use a simile, I were to bring you to the mouth of a volcano and induce you to look down, and the one constraint that I would place upon you then would be: that you could never lose that memory. And therefore we are EVEN NOW all-powerful in conversion, having reached—in the area of the spreading of the faith—the highest degree of mastery, as has been reached in another area—that of physical-corporeal invention—by civilization. Thus we can, at long last … you understand? We have this missionary omnipotence and yet do nothing. For now the only way in which our faith can still be shown is to refuse to take that step. I say, above all: NON AGAM. Not merely Non serviam, but also: I shall not act. I shall not act, because I can, with certainty, and by that action do everything I wish. Nothing remains for us then but to sit here among the fossils of rats, in this maze of dried-up sewers.”

I had no answer to these words. Seeing the pointlessness of staying any longer on the planet, I bade the good friars a fond and tearful farewell, loaded my rocket, which had all this time been safely camouflaged, and started on the journey home, a different man than the one who not so very long ago had landed there.