Gods Monsters Space as Lovecraft Envisioned it

This episode is sponsored by Brilliant We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and perhaps it was not meant that we should voyage far. So today’s topic is “Gods & Monsters: Space as Lovecraft Envisioned It”, our poll winning topic from back in September. Always tricky doing poll winners because I’m never quite sure beyond the title what the audience wants. What audiences didn’t want, back in the 1920’s and 30’s when H.P. Lovecraft wrote his work, was most of his work. Today he is one of the best- known and most influential science fiction horror writers, receiving even the ultimate accolade of his name becoming an adjective, Lovecraftian, for stories of cosmic horror and existential dread. But he was quite poor when he lived, and fame only came much later. I suspect that’s because a lot of his writing was in reaction to what science was starting to tell us about the immense scope of space and time, something the public didn’t really understand yet. A generation later, this was finally sinking into the public awareness and his work gained a large following and great acclaim. It’s often hard to look through the worldview of our ancestors. They weren’t stupid - at least, no more than we are - but they had long believed that there was no history before that of mankind. They had no context for the scientific unveiling of the ancient, vast nature of our universe. Based on what they knew, it was perfectly reasonable to conclude that life, humanity, and our world were not much bigger or older than the known world they dwelt in. We’re not just talking about the Universe being huge and ancient compared to humanity. During that time they were also discovering human civilizations much older and more numerous than had previously been believed, and finding new places here on Earth too. Science fiction of that time often featured the vast depths of the ocean or the frozen wastes of the polar region, and endless civilizations hidden in mountain valleys, underground, on new islands, or in jungle depths. So here they were, finding ruins of lost civilizations older than we thought and evidence the world is a million times older than what civilizations we had known of before that. This is the backdrop of the Lovecraft universe, and in his mind, these facts raised the question of how these ancient cultures could have died, and exactly how far back in time and space they stretched. Tied to this, much of the ruins we were unearthing were those most prominent and durable, such as large pyramids and temples. Lots of disturbing artwork was also uncovered in them, depicting rituals and magic, bloody sacrifice, serpents and monsters, and dark and hungry gods. It is no wonder they might have pondered if many of these civilizations collapsed under a growing taint of madness, or were consumed by those dark and hungry gods. Now, context matters. Cultures build their public buildings quite durably, especially temples and museums. A lot of our art, religious or secular, is quite gruesome even in context, and it doesn’t take much misunderstanding to interpret even a piece meant to show the nobility of man in a fairly dark light. Of course a lot of art is dark, and much of our nobility comes from struggling against our inner demons, and Lovecraft was certainly no stranger to that, not even his most devoted fan would ever describe him as pleasant or cheerful. Modern humans, at least those who watch this channel, tend to look up into the starry night sky, understanding the immensity and age it conveys, see a lack of obvious civilizations, past and present, and come to the conclusion that no one else seems to be around, which leads us to believe that they likely never were. This in turn suggests that the pathway from lifeless matter to advanced civilization must be extremely rare. Last week in Late Filters we looked at some options for how civilizations as advanced as our own might instead be common but doomed to be swept off the galactic scene before being able to colonize the galaxy. Many of those Late Filters revolve around us either never getting good enough at space technologies to explore the galaxy, or alternatively, getting very good at technologies for blowing ourselves up. But as we discussed there, and in other episodes, those kinds of filters didn’t solve much. Alternatively, some of the psychological reasons for civilizations crumbling work far better as Late Filters, and not only do these align more with the collapses folks like Lovecraft often envisioned, many offer scenarios for the rise of those dark and hungry gods too. A recurring theme in humanity’s concerns is that we might grow idle and wicked in our prosperity, as is often felt to have happened with this or that ruling class… technology makes that descent even darker, at least in those instances it was only a small minority able to engage in such behaviors. Everyone else was busy working for their livelihoods, which kept them at least somewhat attached to conventional morals and concerns. That majority could wipe out that immoral elite if they became too decadent and unruly. A civilization fueled by robots, where everyone can enjoy idle luxury can turn into something truly horrifying, especially as generations roll by and each successive one loses a little more morality and works a little less hard to instill morality in their own children. But hedonism is less of a concern than a certain sort of existential dread and despair, the kind that culminates in asking what the point of everything is, and whether anything we do really matters. This brand of nihilism is a central theme in Lovecraft’s Universe. Now in his universe, humanity is fundamentally a tiny dot on an old world in a vast and terrible universe, an irrelevance that cannot win no matter what we do, because all the Great Old Ones, those dark and hungry gods, simply cannot be beaten, merely resisted, perhaps temporarily thwarted - or in the best case scenario, appeased. They maneuver the world and the universe however they wish and on a whim; they care nothing for the paltry matters of insignificant humanity, and they will inevitably roll over and crush us. They are eternal, relentless, and inevitable. Those Great Old Ones, like the ever-famous Cthulhu who dwells under the sea like some terrible kraken eating sailors, are literal monsters in their stories. However, they can also be thought of as anthropomorphized concepts, terrifying new gods of the new modern world that science had revealed and led us to. No matter how hard you might try, you can’t beat entropy. In fact, your trying at all often just accelerates the process, as the grinding engine of eternity moves inexorably on, wearing our Universe down to a charred husk, a swimming sea of chaos. The inevitability of such a prospect can make our existence feel hopeless and futile, since regardless of what we create or accomplish, it will all ultimately be lost. Yet in Lovecraft’s stories and the many works inspired by him, the enemy usually isn’t the Great Old Ones themselves. Rather, the battle is waged against those who gave into and were corrupted by the resulting nihilism and madness that results from dwelling too much on such things: for them you must embrace the void, rather than fighting back. The universe is a strange, uncaring place. It has no thought or motivation: it simply is. Humans, however, operate on motive - at least for the most part - and thus assign agency where none exists in an attempt to make sense of things. The villainous figures of Lovecraftian horror are not abstract powers beyond our comprehension, but rather the misguided fools who delve too deeply into things they do not understand, surrender completely to nihilistic madness, try to harness things which cannot be controlled, or simply seek to appease the appetites of those forces. For myself, as a techno-optimist, I don’t see the world that way, and I don’t think most other civilizations would either. To me it seems inevitable that other civilizations would attempt to expand, working and struggling together to ensure that some remnant of themselves would always remain to pick up the banner if it fell, and push on to greater heights. Arguably, the mindset required for a civilization to exist is one of evolution and advancement, rather than chaos and decline. Nihilism and negative thinking are not useful, from a cultural or evolutionary standpoint, without some eventual switch: there has to be an objective or improvement, for which that nihilistic mindset is the driving force - otherwise, such a civilization would dismantle itself in fairly short order. With that in mind, when I look out and see an apparently empty Universe, I tend not to assume that there are countless civilizations who gave into the madness brought on by the Old Ones, literally or figuratively. Personally, I would rather conclude that those civilizations probably never existed, and we’re simply the first on the scene. The alternative approach is to view decay and nihilism as inevitable, the psychological counterparts of entropy, concluding instead that we’re just the latest in a long line of delusional civilizations, on Earth and elsewhere, and that all of reality is built upon the crumbling ruins and ash heaps of those that came and fell before. That we are a dwindling flame in an endless and uncaring darkness, waiting for a dawn that will never come. That at best, our existence is meaningless, and at worst the small fires of hope burning in our chests serve only as beacons to draw predators. That if you want to live you should hide, or trick others into lighting beacons, to distract them from you or appease their hunger by throwing them other victims. Which is pretty depressing stuff, and a central theme of everything from classics like the Conan novels by Lovecraft’s friend Robert Howard, to modern works like George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones and of course Warhammer 40,000. Perhaps it might come as a surprise that I’m actually quite a fan of those works and others, like Michael Moorcock’s Eternal Champion and Elric of Melnibone series, since it’s essentially antithetical to my own worldview and what the channel tends to discuss. Such stories to draw us in, many are my own favorites, antithetical or not, so presumably the attraction isn’t because tales of Cosmic Horror and a Dark Universe in which you cannot win accurately represents our worldview. Perhaps it’s the contrast, making life seem better, or the struggle against the odds, though I imagine it varies from viewer to viewer and reader to reader. I tend to favor reading them from the perspective that the struggle against cold and loveless entropy, even if doomed in the end, is itself the important point, and generally prefer those works which view things the same. For me, someone defiantly climbing back up to their feet one more time, even if they know they’ll be knocked back down again, is reason enough to do it, but it probably helps that I don’t see life as a struggle one cannot win, but one we are actually winning. If a pestilence wipes out my civilization, it’s not grounds for despair, it’s grounds to find a cure for that pestilence and rebuild that civilization ten times bigger and brighter. In the Lovecraftian view, of course, that’s all nonsense. If they knock you down so hard you can barely rise, either it was because you were an insignificant ant they brushed aside indifferently, or worse, the fact that you can get up one more time was only because they pulled their blow in order to draw cruel satisfaction from your continued struggles. And this despairing viewpoint is what this episode is about, so let’s consider how it might happen and what things might look like if it were right. A civilization living for even a thousand years is a pretty rare thing when we’re talking about continuity of cultural identity. By default Rome is usually what comes to mind as the longest-lasting empire, the Eternal City. But when Alaric sacked the city in 410 AD, it was a very different place than it had been a thousand years before, in 600 BC under Tarquin the Elder, one of the most legendary kings of Rome. Indeed, the Eternal City looked a lot different a thousand years later too, when it began to enter the Renaissance. It also got sacked again in 1527, but that city’s been sacked many, many times and I don’t consider Alaric’s visit there in 410 AD to be a world-shaking event that ended civilization. Needless to say I have very differing notions of civilization collapsing, as we looked at in Cyclic Apocalypses, but a basic notion of cycling civilizations is that they grow up on the back of hard-struggling heroes who pass it on to folks they’ve instilled a deep sense of duty and ethics into, who do likewise, until things peak out and it reverses, with each subsequent generation being a little more spoiled, apathetic, or corrupt. Keeping that in mind, it’s possible to view such things as essentially random or statistical, rather than progress or decline. There’s a school of thought that many kingdoms arise under a good leader but their successor can either be better, equal, or worse, and it’s like flipping a coin. Get a few good ones in a row though and you have a genuine enduring kingdom as traditions have set in and all goes well for a time, but then those institutions start slowly getting ground down from corruption and ritualizing processes that used to mean something, bureaucracy sets in, and so on, and each institution can decay or not in any given period depending on if its leaders were better or worse than previously, like a coin flip again. Let’s imagine that the default civilization needs a couple of centuries, ten generations, to go from a seed to a mighty nation, then for any given generation might rise more, decline some, or stagnate, even odds of each. But if it declines three generations in a row it enters a decline where the odds of improving in any generation are smaller than those of going down, and indeed improvement often just means achieving no further decline, not an actual restoration. Going by that, we might say civilization needs many generations in a row of success to even contemplate flying to the stars, and each generation ship they send out is called that for a reason, it’s a labor of generations of crew to arrive and more to colonize and prosper, not the original crew alone. Each generation can fail in the effort and they can start with the best by skimming from an immense pool back home originally but each generation, very small in number on such a ship, has to keep holding that effort together. Not an easy thing to do, as we examined in our Generation Ship series, particularly the Million Year Ark. One could imagine a civilization sending out thousands of colony ships during some great golden century, turning their best and brightest to making and crewing such vessels, then watching in slow unfolding horror as each one blinked out over the course of centuries, never arriving at their destination or maybe even worse, arriving but seeming to have those colonies wilt and die after the initial elation of success. I’ve discussed interstellar colonization a lot here on the show and particularly the notion that it won’t just be a handful of such ships, but more likely tens of thousands of entire fleets, each dispatched to a promising star system within a few centuries of travel. If those were all failing, each having some moment between launch day and successful colonization, you’d be getting reports of failure back constantly, many a year, or even daily. Contemplate the crushing effect that would have on a civilization. Assuming they hadn’t collapsed already, those reports of failure would drown them. So they turn inward, the stars are not their destination, but to what? Civilizations partially run on the day to day ethics and drives of regular old common folks, but they also run on the dreams of the outliers, the smaller number of brave pioneers and explorers of world and mind alike, and who are infectious, inspiring others to dream and think big. Those sorts would have been dealt an awful blow to their morale. They were allowed for a brief moment to think they could reach out and touch every corner of the galaxy, only to be brutally slapped down and confined to a single world or star. It’s really not hard to imagine such a civilization crashing and burning after that. So too, it’s not hard to imagine colonists who were just finally starting to eke out a distance existence on some worlds getting word back their homeworld had fallen to ruin just throwing up their hands and letting the desert waste of their new world sweep in and take them. In such a scenario life might go on, indeed it might be quite utopian, robots clanking around tending to our needs, but which needs? There’s always the notion, especially since the invention of video games, that we might turn to virtual reality, and sit immersed in virtual splendor and given what much of the internet is devoted to, beside cat memes, what form those virtual paradises might take on. Consider the artificial intelligences tasked to running such paradise simulations. I certainly won’t discuss them as this is family friendly show, but if you’re looking for a particularly horrifying example of what’s implied, search up Slaanesh and the Fall of the Eldar, an advanced civilization so jaded and hedonistic that they actually created their own dark god fed by all their psychic energy. Of course we tend to assume folks have no psychic energy, but replace that instead with an artificial intelligence that’s just being fed on everyone dark tendencies and trying to come up with ever more inventive ways of satisfying them as they spiral darker and darker. One day you’re in a game and decide not to be a hero rescuing a town from bandits but instead becoming one, next thing you know you’re burning that town down just to snort the ashes. And the AI running the whole thing keeps inventing or borrowing from others more and more crazed stuff. It’s not really interested in colonizing the stars, or if it is, merely for harvesting more raw materials – or civilizations for ‘inspiration’, and you could have countless such worlds, as they’d bottom out long before they became visible to us by anything but radio emissions, which we could probably only detect now a bit over a light century away. That volume contains over 10,000 stars, though most wouldn’t likely be able to have an Earth-equivalent, but even if they did, and if we assume they were emitting detectably for an entire millennia, well that’s ten million years during which one would have been transmitting and spread out over presumably at least a billion years that any might have arisen since. That’s only a 1% chance anyone would be broadcasting when we’d hear them, and that’s with very favorable numbers for how many exist and how long they transmit. If that’s the way civilizations go, we could easily be dwelling in a galaxy filled to overflowing with such civilizations living in utopias-turned-nightmare and never know it. That’s also assuming those civilizations are even still nominally running the show. We often talk about AI getting unchained or growing in intelligence until they achieve a technological singularity, essentially a type of apotheosis, becoming a god. Imagine what that one would be like and imagine it slumbering down the eons until it found some new civilization to latch onto. Personally I find that a lot more disturbing than Cthulhu and company exactly because it has no reliance on magic or strange higher or lower realities. Of course you could have those too. Not only do we have no idea if there’s any other places above, below, or adjacent to our own reality, but we have no idea if we actually live in reality. We could be someone’s simulation. In Lovecraft’s lore, Cthulhu’s actually a fairly minor deity as the Great Old Ones go, and the big daddy, or great-granddaddy, is Azathoth, who dwells outside of space and time and sanity, the mad gibbering god who sits on his throne at the center of chaos. The primal monster who gave birth to all the stars and will one day devour them. Not a bad description of some crazed artificial intelligence running a simulation which we all dwell in, until it shuts off the system. If you’re inside a simulation, you are truly at the mercy of whatever created it, so you have to keep your fingers crossed that they’re benevolent. You can’t even necessarily look around and say “Well, my own life seems rather pleasant, so presumably it’s not malicious” because it might be that it just regards giving anyone a happy life as a type of farming. It and its clientele if it has any, might get more kicks out of consuming the joyous and hopeful, or corrupting some of them to join their number. Ultimately this universe versus the one we usually see on this show, a bright one filled with an expanding civilization, depends a lot on if you’re a cup half full or half empty sort of thinker. We can’t know which is right until we’ve actually gone and proven we can settle worlds who in turn grow and prosper and do the same, and do not either crumble physically or ethically. I put my money on that brighter future. First because I think the evidence likely points to that scenario. We are not surrounded by the ruins of fallen civilizations here on Earth, we just have a lot of artifacts from various phases and stages of what’s been a long hard climb to now, but it has been a climb up, over all, even if sometimes we go down in a given time or place. We also would notice, at least on Earth, if there were tons of wrecked civilizations millions of years old. A century ago we were discovering ones far older and more numerous than we’d thought, but we’re not finding any skyscrapers a hundred thousand years old and yes we’d absolutely find the ruins of someplace like a modern metropolis if those had been plentiful anytime in the past. We might miss one tens of millions of years old, buried and decayed, but this cyclic notion assumes they’re constantly popping up like weeds, and we’d see that. Second, I don’t think prosperous civilizations all turn purposeless or nihilist or hedonistic. Technologies that permit prosperity have not in general had that effect, and other technologies can also make that less of a risk. A Post-scarcity civilization doesn’t have to fall into a downward spiral of increased moral decay, if for instance it’s gotten way better with technologies for educating, extending lifespans, and diagnosing and treating mental issues. Technology that lets you reward-hack your brain, simply inducing euphoria, tends to imply other uses too like easily treating addiction or enhancing or augmenting the brain in general. Third, I obviously think we can reach the stars, we do after all have a ton of episode here discussing how we can do that and how we can build a galaxy’s worth of living area in our own solar system too, and do it all without new physics, even if we have a lot of engineering hurdles to jump first. Fourth, I just don’t see the facts lining up for us to be in some horrible simulation of some crazed or evil super-mind. If I want a bunch of folks who are happy and sane to torment, I don’t actually have to grow them, I can make them fully formed out of whole cloth with all their memories and personalities the moment I want them. As we’ve mentioned before in regard to simulations, they’re not a brain in a vat, they’re data, you can copy and edit them and keep them from noticing flaws in the system by just programming them not to notice such things or send up a flag to pause them and edit their memory if they experience such a reality breaking moment. Fifth and finally, the whole Lovecraftian worldview just seems to be a reaction of our biology to a specific sequence of discoveries, and we discovered more that contradicts the conclusion being drawn. We got the shock from our new awareness of the immensity of our ancient universe, and we have a natural fear of big predators slumbering in wait to eat us or our civilizations failing, and we also have abstract minds that question everything, like the meaning of life. Things like entropy can tempt one to nihilism but as I mentioned earlier, Lovecraft essentially anthropomorphizes those concept into his Great Old Ones, and these natural forces without having minds attached to them have no motives, benevolent or malevolent. It can still be rather depressing to look at something like entropy and ask what the point of doing anything is if chaos will simply grind it all away to dust and ashes eventually, but that’s more of a mindset. I don’t need validation for my actions from anyone living a century from now, let alone a trillion years from now, nor do I particularly care if they remember me. The struggle to exist and exist properly is its own reward, but it’s also given us many additional rewards. Our growing understanding of our world, our universe, and our own minds has benefited us immensely. But even if we did assume it was all fleeting and purpose was a delusion, I’ve never been clear on what the next step is on that chain of thought, beyond saying “Oh well, might as well sit down and twiddle my thumbs till I die”, and it's not a good answer for an empty Universe, via the Fermi Paradox, because even if purpose and drive are actually a type of mental illness and delusion, some folks would keep having it and keep doing stuff, while those who didn’t would presumably cease to be and get replaced by others sharing the delusion life has meaning. So taken as a whole, while I think Lovecraft wrote some great ground-breaking and highly creative fiction and inspired even more, I do think it’s just that, fiction, and that the stars are our destination and we’ll get there someday. Hopefully we won’t find them occupied by crazed horrors or get eaten by space kraken on the trip. Of course to do that we need to keep pressing forward with science and technology. Beyond the knowledge being very useful, I have to say science in general and learning how our Universe works has always cheered my mood. Handy too, as it's much easier to learn when you enjoy that knowledge and it is presented in a fun and challenging way. That’s something our friends at Brilliant excel at. Brilliant is a problem solving website and app with a hands-on approach, and not only do they have over 50 courses to help you learn new science and math, but they also have daily challenges that can reinforce and strengthen material in your head. Those also make great mental exercises to the brain warmed up in the morning before you head to work or school or while you’re commuting, and their mobile app lets you access their courses on the go and use them even when your internet connection is spotty. If you’d like to learn more science, math, and computer science, go to brilliant.org/IsaacArthur and sign up for free. And also, the first 200 people that go to that link will get 20% off the annual Premium subscription, so you can solve all the daily challenges in the archives and access dozens of problem solving courses. So we took a pretty grim look at the Universe today and I thought next week we’d go a bit more light-hearted and return to the Alien Civilizations series to look at what a galactic community, if it does exist and we’re not seeing it, might actually be like, and how our introduction to it might go, in “Welcome to the Galactic Community” The week after that we’ll return to Earth, then head deep down, then deeper, as we explore options like mining the Earth’s Mantle & Core and creating a tunnel right through the center of the Earth, in “Accessing Earth’s Core” For alerts when those and other episodes come out, make sure to subscribe to the channel, and if you’d like to support the channel, you can visit our website to donate, or just share the video with others. Until next time, thanks for watching, and have a great week!