Through the Gates of the Silver Key: Chapter III, from Metaphysics to the Multiverse

Once Randolph Carter used the silver key to go back in time he disappeared from our Space-Time. In previous articles, I hypothesized what happened to him as his disappearance was documented in H.P. Lovecraft’s tale “The Silver Key.” While the Carter we know looped back in time to once again be the young boy, the “other” Carter that would have continued in our Space-Time may have “fractured” into another universe. However, in the subsequent tale, “Through the Gates of the Silver Key,” written by Lovecraft and E. Hoffmann Price we get an unprecedented view of his experiences after he used the silver key.

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Chapter III continues the tale with the mysterious individual Swami Chandraputra explaining to the others what happened to Randolph Carter. Once he used the silver key, Carter lost all sense of motion and time – “Imperceptibly, such things as age and location ceased to have any significance whatever.” Additionally, “Now there was no distinction between boy and man.” Based on these statements, Carter was in a realm where linear time did not exist – he felt as if he was an extension of consciousness tunneling through time and not just experiencing time from one moment to the next. One top of that he had no spatial reference, having “…only a flux of impressions not so much visual as cerebral amidst which the entity that was Randolph Carter experienced perceptions or registrations of all that his mind revolved on, yet without any clean consciousness of the way in which he received them.”

Later Swami Chandraputra states that Carter unlocked the gate “…one leading from earth and time to that extension of earth which is outside of time, and form which in turn, the Ultimate Gate lead fearsomely and perilously to the Last Void which is outside all earths, all universes, and all matter.” The last, bold part of this statement may provide evidence for Lovecraft predicting the theory of the multiverse. Essentially, the multiverse theory is the idea that there is a set of infinite or finite universes that make up the entirety of space, time, matter and energy.

multiverse-1-1024x1004 The concept of the multiverse as conceived by physicists.

The term “multiverse” was first coined in 1895 by American philosopher and psychologist William James. In his essay “Is Life Worth Living?” James wrote “Truly, all we know of good and duty proceeds from nature…[which] is all plasticity and indifference – a moral multiverse, as one might call it.” – from www.philosophynow.org/issue/89/The_Multiverse_Conundrum. While there is no reference to William James in any of Lovecraft’s stories, he makes a passing reference to this philosopher in a discussion of philosophy in the United States in Collected Essays, Volume 2: Literary Criticism, H.P. Lovecraft – edited by S.T. Joshi (2004).

james                                                                                                                              William James, the person who coined the term “multiverse.”

While Lovecraft never used the term multiverse, he has used the word “universes” throughout many of this stories including “Through the Gates of the Silver Key” (see above). Thus, while Lovecraft may not have been familiar with William James word multiverse, he used the term “universes” in the following tales:

The Transition of Juan Romero

The Call of Cthulhu

The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath

The Colour Out of Space

The Whisperer in Darkness

At the Mountains of Madness

The Shadow Out of Time

The Challenge from Beyond (a round-robin tale)

And his poem “The Poe-et’s Nightmare”

While in Lovecraft’s time the word multiverse was coined by James and used in a more philosophic or moral context, physicists have used to term in their scientific studies of cosmological forces, quantum mechanics and the Big Bang. Thus, the term multiverse is one that originally had a more metaphysical meaning until the latter half of the 20th century when theoretical mathematics, particle physics and deep-space astronomical observations merged in the subsequent development of hypotheses that included the concept of more than one universe. Thus, by pushing the boundaries of known science Lovecraft may have had a small part in moving the idea of the multiverse from metaphysics into the realm of science.

multiverse-1-100335844-orig                                Multiverse

Randolph Carter states that humanity would have a difficult time understanding the true nature of reality but he had a Guide to help him.  This Guide was an entity on Earth millions of years ago “…when man was undreamed of, and when forgotten shapes moved on a streaming planet building strange cities among whose last, crumbling ruins the earliest mammals were to play.” While this may have been a reference to the Serpent Men of Valusia, more than likely this was a reference to the Elder Thing cities built by the shoggoths. Later, Carter observed earth’s ancient past where “There were cities under the sea, and denizens thereof; and towers in deserts where globes and cylinders and nameless winged entities shot off into space or hurtled down out of space.” Again, this passage appears to be referencing the Elder Things and their cities under the sea as well as their travels to space.

05-elder_thing                                                                                               Elder Thing by Michael Bukowski (www.yog-blogsoth.blogspot.com)

Beyond the history of Earth, Carter makes a few references to the Dreamlands, which he visited as a boy in dreams. Some of these references include galleys sailing up the river Oukranos, the gilded spires of Thran and the jungles of Kled. Thus, at this point Carter’s consciousness was moving from the history of Earth to another universe – the Dreamlands. However, beyond linear time and this adjacent universe, Carter’s “Guide” was about to open another door beyond these realities. Next time we will discuss Carter’s “Guide,” the Ancient One named Umr At-Tawil. Thank you – Fred.

H.P. Lovecraft and Metaphysics

metaphysics_by_mearone Metaphysics by Mearone (www.deivantart.com)

As Kenneth Hite states in Tour De Lovecraft: The Tales (2011), “Through the Gates of the Silver Key” is a trippy, metaphysical tale.”  H.P. Lovecraft references metaphysics in a few of his tales.  For example, in “The Music of Erich Zann” the protagonist states that he is a student of metaphysics at the university (presumably Miskatonic University). In the subsequent story, “The Thing on the Doorstep,” Edward Derby noted that Asenath Waite was taking a special course in mediaeval metaphysics at Miskatonic. But what exactly is metaphysics and why does it seem to be an important component of “Through the Gates of the Silver Key,” written by H.P. Lovecraft and E. Hoffmann Price?

asenath_waite_by_marycountsthewalls-dagur7t Asenath Waite by Mary Counts the Walls (www.deviantart.com)

Metaphysics is one of the four main branches of traditional philosophy (Metaphysics:  A Very Short Introduction by Stephen Mumford, 2012), with the other three being ethics, logic and epistemology (the study of knowledge; separating justified belief from opinion). Metaphysics itself is the investigation of the fundamental nature of being and reality. In a sense, metaphysics and science are attempting to accomplish the same goal; obtain an understanding of our reality and the universe. However, their methods of understanding are very different. While science is based on observations of the universe and reality, metaphysics is not concerned about what can be observed, measured or quantified (Mumford, 2012). In a sense, science addresses specific questions and inquiries, while metaphysics take a far more generalized and “grand-holistic” approach. Thus, metaphysics is dealing with issues such as existence, the properties of matter and energy, self and individuality, cause and effect and probabilities but the consideration of such subject matter is not based on the utilization of the scientific method of observations, establishment of hypotheses and testing those hypotheses to develop predictive theory. One could see how a more philosophical approach, rather than purely scientific, would appeal to Lovecraft.

For Lovecraft, the two largest influences on his interesting blend of metaphysical materialism originate from Ernst Haeckel’s The Riddles of the Universe (1900) and Hugh Elliot’s Modern Science and Materialism (1919) (I Am Providences: The Life and Times of H.P. Lovecraft by S.T. Joshi, 2013). While science was an important component of Lovecraft’s tales and writings, metaphysics was probably even more important given it frequently deals with generalities and vast concepts and ideas of the cosmos and reality. However, metaphysics and science are not completely separate disciplines.

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Concepts and ideas can easily move from the realm of metaphysics to science, based on recently collected observational data, which in turn is largely based on advances in technology. Cosmology is a perfect example of this – questions about the size and nature of the universe, does the universe have a beginning and/or end, and the possibility of the multiverse – were largely metaphysical questions throughout most of human history.  However, with Hubble’s observations of galaxies exhibiting a red shift in the early 20th century, the Universe was no longer a static, eternal thing. The fact that all galaxies are moving away from each other and at an accelerated rate, implies that the Universe had a beginning.  Such observations have led to cosmology becoming a sub-discipline of astronomy and no long confined to metaphysics.  Additionally, quantum mechanics and subsequent observations associated with particle physics (having sub-atomic particles slam into each other at very high speeds) began to address questions associated with the nature of matter and put these questions into the realm of quantitative science. In fact, I think H.L. Mencken described metaphysics and its relationship with science the best with the following quote:

“Metaphysics is almost always an attempt to prove the incredible by an appeal to the unintelligible.”

More simply put, physicist Robert W. Wood concluding once in a toast that the difference between physics and metaphysics “… is that the metaphysicist has no laboratory.”

meta

However, as easily as metaphysics can inspire or drift toward science, it can also easily drift toward more religious or spiritual thought. This, Lovecraft flat-out denied, stating that anthropology of the late 19th century provided enough information as to the origin and evolution of humanity and that religious belief was not required in considering our role in the Cosmos (Joshi, 2013). While spiritual concepts never conflicted with Lovecraft’s metaphysical materialism view of the Cosmos, new scientific concepts, such as Einstein’s theory of relativity and quantum mechanics, did intellectually disturb is cosmological perspective of indifference. However, Lovecraft’s always appeared to come around and integrate these new theories into his philosophical view.

metaphysics_by_kram666-d4i0ntm Metaphysics by Kram666 (www.deivantart.com)

In conclusion, Lovecraft’s cosmic metaphysical philosophy directly shaped and developed his view of indifferentism in the Universe. This perspective certainly comes through in many of his tales, even if it’s not explicitly outlined. In the case of “Through the Gates of the Silver Key,” Lovecraft’s (and Price’s) metaphysical philosophy is on display as these grand concepts of Space-Time smash into the idea of “self” in a perspective that does not consider the scientific method. This is particularly the case as we move into Chapters 3 and 4 of “Through the Gates of the Silver Key.”  I just wanted to provide this background on metaphysics as we move through this tale as I attempt to interpret the presented metaphysical concepts and ideas in a scientific point of view. Thank you – Fred.

Through the Gates of the Silver Key: Discovering What Happened to Randolph Carter

“I will say this – this is some kinda slam-bang story. There’s more wonderful loose ends, trippy metaphysics, and crazy fizzy-pop ideas in this story than in virtually any other Lovecraft tale of like length.” Kenneth Hite from Tour De Lovecraft: The Tales (2011).

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Over a large part of 2017 Lovecraftian Science will focus on the science associated with H.P. Lovecraft’s Dream Cycle of stories and the Dreamlands in general. This will include discussions on the theory of multiverse, the structure and nature of matter, quantum mechanics, the ecology of the various ecosystems of the Dreamlands and other topics.  Thus, “Through the Gates of the Silver Key” written by H.P. Lovecraft and E. Hoffmann Price will be the start of these investigations as we move through 2017.  I included Kenneth Hite’s quote above to emphasize the point that “Through the Gates of the Silver Key” is filled with a variety of metaphysical and scientific ideas and concepts.  To delve into these, I will be conducting this analysis on a chapter by chapter basis. This article will cover Chapters 1 and 2 of “Through the Gates of the Silver Key.”

The story begins with four people at the home of Etienne Laurent De Marigny of New Orleans to discuss the estate of Randolph Carter who has been missing for four years.  While the attorney Ernest B. Aspinwall is anxious to declare Carter dead and divide his estate up among his heirs, a strange individual named Swami Chandraputra opposes this action since he claims he knows that Carter is alive and what has happened to him over the last four years. The rest of the tale documents Carter’s adventures.

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Randolph Carter by Andrew Johansen

It should be noted that “Through the Gates of the Silver Key” is sort of a sequel to “The Silver Key,” which we have discussed in previous articles and Chapters 1 and 2 summarize the occurrences in “The Silver Key.” Carter takes the key to back to the wooded hills and into a “strange cave in the forest slope, the dreaded, “snake-den” which country folk shunned…” In the farthermost corner, deep in the cave, Carter approaches a granite wall and pulls the silver key out of his pocket. As a result, present day, adult Carter disappears but young Carter in the past has acquired the ability to predict future events and discoveries.

Initially, these circumstances appeared to result in a “time loop” of Carter forever going back into the past with the aid of the Silver Key only to reach that point when he uses it to again go back in time. However, I hypothesized that the first Carter loops back to give his younger self the Silver Key to alter his own timeline so that he can eventually break out of our Space-Time and “Through the Gates of the Silver Key” supports this hypothesis.  This more quantum view of time is sometime referred to as the “river model,” where our Space-Time is not just one of many Universes but is also one of many Times. Indeed, in “Through the Gates of the Silver Key” a friend and distant cousin of Carter, Mr. Ward Phillips, claims that Carter “…was still alive in another time-dimension and might well return some day.” This “time-dimension” may be a reference to an alternative time-line.

As the individuals were discussing Carter, De Marigny presents the group a strange piece of parchment that was found in Carter’s car on the day of his disappearance. While no one can translate the characters on the parchment, they are similar to characters that have been observed in an old book Harley Warren once had. Remember Warren was the person in “The Statement of Randolph Carter” (another tale of Lovecraft’s previously reviewed) who entered an underground crypt in Florida, encountered some creatures and did not return to the surface. It was hypothesized that this crypt was actually a portal to the Dreamlands that ghouls were using to enter our Space-Time.

the_silver_key_and_dream_parchment_fragment_by_jasonmckittrick-d83xfq0                                                                     The Silver Key and the Dream Parchment Fragment by Jason McKittrick (www.cryptocurium.com)

Thus, to summarize so far, Carter used a key and parchment (which he memorized but left in the car) to leave our Space-Time. The parchment had similar characters used by Warren to enter a place that may have been a portal to our Space-Time by ghouls. Additionally, the “snake-den” portal was near Kingsport, a location also known to have a Universal connection with the Dreamlands Universe. In “The Festival” this known portal or connection may actually be underneath the town itself; is it possible that there are a series of catacombs and grottos underneath Kingsport and the surrounding lands that can be used to leave our Space-Time?

In Chapter 2 of “Through the Gates of the Silver Key” we get more information in what was in the “snake-den” when Carter disappeared from our Space-Time. Turns out the simple snake-den was an unknown, inner grotto with a rock wall shaped like a large pylon. A keystone appeared on the wall and above it was a large, sculptured hand. Carter then used the silver key with some motions and intonations to “…cross the barrier to the untrammeled land of his dreams and the gulfs where all dimensions dissolved in the absolute.”

snakeden_glinda_chen               Is the Snake-Den near Kingsport a portal to another Space-Time? Artwork by Glinda Chen

Finally, recently it has been reported that scientists have actually created time crystals, which are essentially a unique and possibly new form of matter. These crystals have an atomic structure that repeats not just in space but also in time. Essentially, their atomic lattice matrix structure is in perpetual motion without the introduction of an external source of energy. This unique form of matter is not in equilibrium. Thus, these crystals oscillate in their ground state, keeping them in a constant condition of non-equilibrium in the absence of any applied energy. Keep in mind this is fairly new and largely theoretical research; while two teams and generated results, such research needs to be repeated and confirmed by other labs. However, if proven true, the ability to oscillate or repeatedly flip their atomic spin without the application of energy will provide valuable insight into additional applications of quantum mechanics. Are similar forms of non-equilibrium matter needed for inter-dimensional travel to other Space-Times? Is the Silver Key composed of some unique form of non-equilibrium matter, similar to a time crystals? Without examining the key, we may never know.

view-into-ion-trap-apparatus       Physicists plan to create a “time crystal” — a theoretical object that moves in a repeating pattern without using energy — inside a device called an ion trap. Image: Hartmut Häffner (www.wired.com)

Next time we will review Chapter 3 of “Through the Gates of the Silver Key.” Thank you – Fred.

What Made the Old Man Terrible in H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Terrible Old Man?”

57128-rpwpirhncloakanddaggergames                                               The Terrible Old Man (by Cloak and Dagger Games)

In one of Lovecraft’s shortest tales “The Terrible Old Man” three thieves decide to rob a very old and seemly feeble man who lives in Kingsport, Massachusetts. The old man appears to be very eccentric; he is observed talking to a set of bottles, each one  with a small piece of lead in it suspended from a string. As the old man speaks to the bottles, the pieces of lead appear to move or vibrate as if in communication with him. During the night of the attempted burglary, two of the three thieves go into the house, screams are heard but they don’t come out. The third man is afraid they had to kill the old man. When the third man, Mr. Czanek, heard someone leaving the house he assumed it was his partners. It turned out to be the terrible old man “leaning quietly on his knotted cane and smiling hideously.” Later, three unidentifiable bodies, horribly slashed, were washed in with the tide.

king1 Kingsport (www.mundotentacular.blogspot.com)

First, it should be noted that the story takes place in Kingsport, a place we discussed earlier with “The Festival.” It is hypothesized that Kingsport may be one of those placed in our Universe that is a portal or door to a parallel or alternate Universe. “The Terrible Old Man” noted that the three thieves were not of Kingsport blood – this may be a reference to the strange beings, possibly highly evolved, sentient forms of annelid worm (ringed or segmented worms such as earthworms or leeches). Those of Kingsport blood may be related to these extra-dimensional worm entities. Indeed, the unusually long-life and strength of such a “feeble” old man may be due to his unique genetic heritage.

In addition to the potential connection to “The Festival,” the fact that the Terrible Old Man talks to the lead fragments in the bottles and they seem to respond as if in conversation, as well as the names written on the bottles, indicates that the lead fragments may be a means either of storing the consciousness of the named victims and/or serve as a conduit for communication to wherever the victims exist. Is it possible that “Scar-Face,” “Long Tom,” “Spanish Joe,” and the others named, including the three new victims who attempted to rob the old man, are in the other universe referred to at the end of “The Festival?”

the_terrible_old_man_by_pixx_73 The Terrible Old Man by Pixx 73 (www.deivantart.com)

Finally, it is particularly interesting that the fragments suspended in the bottles are specifically noted to be lead. Lead is one of the first metals ever utilized by humans.  The oldest known use of lead is a lead figurine from Egypt that dates to 4,000 B.C. The ancient Romans used lead in the construction of water pipes and lining baths. In the environment lead is typically absorbed onto sediment particles and it generally not a toxic problem under most natural conditions.  However, like many heavy metals as the pH becomes acidic and there is an increase in hydrogen ions, this increases the mobilization of heavy metals including lead. It is when the lead is mobilized or in a dissolved state that it can be assimilated by organisms and result in physiological damage.

inside-flint-pipes-min-tang-and-kelsey-pieper Corrosion of pipes and the mobilization of lead has led to negative health impacts on the residents of Flint, Michigan, with a particularly strong impact on the children.

The mobilization of lead in water can have a devastating impact on aquatic life as well as that of humans. This last point was clearly demonstrated in Flint, Michigan, where river water (Flint River) was used instead of lake water (Lake Huron) as a source of potable water for the residents of Flint. The river water is 19 times more corrosive than the lake water and no anti-corrosive agent was being used to treat the water. Thus, the more corrosive river water mobilized the lead in the aging service lines to the homes of the community, where almost 42% of the residents live below the poverty line (www.cnn.com). Such negligence has a direct and negative impact on health of these residents.

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Lead can have devastating impacts on human health, particularly children. The metabolism of lead is similar to that of calcium so excess lead can be deposited in the bone, where it can remain for years. Inorganic lead poisoning can produce fatigue, sleep disturbance and anemia. Severe lead exposure by children, primarily through ingestion, can lead to encephalopathy and mental retardation. Finally, organic lead (lead attached onto a carbon molecule) has an affinity for the brain and can result in insomnia and restlessness and in higher levels of exposure result in delirium, hallucinations, convulsions, coma and even death (A Textbook of Modern Toxicology by Ernest Hodgson and Patricia E. Levi, 1987).the_terrible_old_man_by_monicagarciaart-d6kbodh The Terrible Old Man by Monica Garcia art (www.deivantart.com)

In addition to the documented toxicological impacts of lead, a study has recently come out from some researchers at Harvard University and U.C. Berkeley that rates of violent crime, in particular homicide, considerably increased between 1921 and 1936 in cities where lead service pipes were installed in the late 19th century (Feigenbaum and Muller, 2016; Lead Exposure and Violent Crime in the Early Twentieth Century). The study does admit that if lead exposure does increase crime, it is only one of several factors that include, but are not necessarily limited to, local crime as well as economic and sociological circumstances. However, the studies did use several different methodologies to arrive at the same conclusion.

Was the terrible old man’s violent nature at least partially attributed to his exposure to high amounts of lead, associated with him handling the lead fragments? Were his conversations with the lead fragments in the named bottles communications with his victims from another universe or was this behavior a result of a combination of delirium and hallucinations as result of his exposure to organic forms of lead? If people have actually witnessed the lead fragments vibrating in response to the old man’s discussions there may be more to this; however, some degree of lead poisoning may also account for the old man’s terrible and violent nature.

the_terrible_old_man_by_snoopymd-d9gppc1 The Terrible Old Man by Snoopymd (www.deviantart.com)

Next time we will initiate a series of discussions on “Through the Gate of the Silver Key” co-written by H.P. Lovecraft and E. Hoffmann Price. Thank you – Fred

Beyond the Mountains of Westworld: Part 3b – The Emergence of Consciousness

westworld-skele-fb       Manufacturing another host on HBO’s Westworld

As previously discussed the physicist, futurist and popularizer of science Michio Kaku presented a model on consciousness in his book The Further of the Mind: The Scientific Quest to Understand, Enhance and Empower the Mind (2014) that involved increasing levels from Level 0 (plants and bacteria) to Level III (humans). One of the key factors that moves an entity from Level II to Level III is having the ability to use existing information to respond to conditions in the past or present to anticipate repercussions or effects in the future.  This is markedly different than instinct, which is based on a genetically set of feedback loops that respond to environmental cues or imprinting / conditioning an animal to expect a response in the immediate future based on training or past conditions.  However, while instinct and imprinting have their roots firmly placed in Darwinian evolution through natural selection, this does not mean higher levels of consciousness is absent from other forms of Terran life (e.g. lions, dolphins, etc.). For example, can any form of kin selection (doing something in favor for the group and not the individual) be considered a higher level of consciousness since to some it can be considered a “higher” form of Darwinian evolution? A large part of this may be how we define consciousness as humans.  However, within the context of this discussion we will focus on the shoggoths of Lovecraft’s “At the Mountains of Madness” and the hosts in HBO’s Westworld.

dr-michio-kaku Dr. Michio Kaku

As previously mentioned, shoggoths were created initially as food and so started as Level 0 consciousness.

“It was under the sea, at first for food and later for other purposes, that they [Elder Things] first created earth life – using available substances according to long-known methods.” – Lovecraft, “At the Mountains of Madness.”

In addition, starting out as a source of food, it should be noted that the shoggoths were created from available substances.  This supports the hypothesis that prokaryotic (bacterial) life was already in existence on Earth when the Elder Things arrived. Additional support for this is found when comparing the estimated date of the arrival of the Elder Things to Earth relative to first appearance of prokaryotic life in the fossil records.

It is also hypothesized that the Elder Things created eukaryotic cells (complex cells) out of prokaryotic cells (simple cells) through a process called endosymbiosis.  The eukaryotic cells gave rise to animals, plants, fungi, protists and possibly other forms of life that the Elder Things extinguished for being a nuisance. Given the complex biology of the shoggoths (more on that in a future article) I propose their cellular structure is far more complex than eukaryotic cells, calling the shoggoth cells “super-eukaryotes.” Thus, the way the Elder Things built eukaryotic cells with prokaryotic cells, I propose they used eukaryotic cells to build the shoggoth cells. In additional to the complex cellular structure, the shoggoths were designed so they could not reproduce on their own. Sexual reproduction was an accident stumbled upon by life on Earth and fueled the engine of genetic variation, which drove nature selection and the process of evolution. The Elder Things did not want such genetic freedom for the shoggoths so they were intentionally designed to not breed on their own. New shoggoths could only be created by the Elder Things in the shoggoth pits and even that ability was eventually lost as the Elder Thing civilization fell into decadence.  This left the Elder Things with modifying existing shoggoths to suit their needs.

evolution-of-prokaryotic-and-eukaryotic-cells_www-slidesharecdn-com

Comparing prokaryotic and eukaryotic cells (www.slidesharecdn.com)

In spite of this high degree of control over the biology of the shoggoths, even re-designing them for intensive labor-associated on land, the shoggoths eventually acquired “accidental intelligence,” which made them a danger from time to time. As the Elder Things re-designed shoggoths to take on more and more complex tasks (e.g. moving large objects, communicating through telepathy, actually building structures), they quickly moved to Level I and, if a high degree of cooperation was required particularly in the building of structures, eventually to Level II. The accidental intelligence probably pushed them from Level II to Level III consciousness.

I will not go into the history of the rebellions and subsequent subjugations of the shoggoths; instead I want to focus on the how they acquired this accidental intelligence. With no type of reproduction, the shoggoth population could not increase nor was there any genetic variety to drive natural selection. However, I hypothesize this accidental intelligence was acquired through millions of years of a type of “prokaryotic sex” or sex that increases genetic variation but does not produce offspring; this unique type of genetic exchange is called horizontal gene transfer.

lovecraft___shoggoth__aquatic_by_kingovrats-d9myqd6 An aquatic shoggoth by Kingovrats (www.deviantart.com)

Horizontal gene transfer (HGT) is the exchange or transfer of genetic material between unicellular and/or multicellular organisms that does not involve the production of offspring (which is lateral gene transfer – that is, parents to offspring). Many bacteria are very effective at transferring some of their genetic material to other organisms and one of the most common instances of this is increased antibiotic resistance in bacteria or increased resistance to a pesticide. The surviving bacteria (more resistant to the antibiotic or pesticide) transfer their resistant genes into others. It is hypothesized that over the course of millions of years, the shoggoths were receiving genes from bacterial and possible eukaryotic organisms that over time allowed them to develop a nervous system (and eventually consciousness) without the need of sex or evolution. In a sense, this was an underground repository of genes that was shared among the shoggoths over millions of year. Eventually, with the right combination of genes at least one, or possibly a group, of shoggoths attained enough intelligence to resist the hypnotic control of the Elder Things and rebelled by sharing these genes through HGT. The ultimate irony is while the Elder Things created complex life on Earth with the prokaryotic material available, their downfall was largely a result of this same material, re-modeling their ultimate creations on a genetic level. Thus, in the case of the shoggoths the birth of their consciousness took millions of years and was the result of HGT via the resident microbial life on Earth.

main-qimg-bad83d73519e6c5fe9124bf307a6ce82-c                             The process of horizontal gene transfer in prokaryotes – is this out shoggoths acquired their accidental intelligence? (www.quorachn.net)

For the hosts of Westworld the production of consciousness was a very different process. In their case it was not through HGT but instead was a combination of self-reprogramming and the collection of memories, which eludes to Kaku’s idea of consciousness being tied to using many feedback loops to create a model of the world and then run stimulations in time (Kaku, 2014). Again, without going into too many spoilers, in Westworld the hosts are used for entertainment purposes and when damaged they are sent back to the lab for repairs. Typically, the hosts are used for the same role repeatedly. However, some of the hosts had previous roles; for example, one host that plays the role of prostitute had a previous role of a pioneer mother. Those memories of her previous role were never completely purged from her system and so they are played in her mind as memories, sort of like having some old software on a hard drive you thought you wiped clean. These past memories are confusing, beyond the limits of their current roles (programming) and eventually gives rise to the concept of something beyond Westworld. While they operate in the park each host has one function or plays one part and then is re-set for another run. However, these memories begin to give a sense of time and space beyond their known reality.

westworld-ep6 An earlier model of a host on HBO’s Westworld

Layered over these memories, thinking beyond your individual role in the park, is the fact that one of the hosts actually becomes self-aware while being repaired in the lab. Initially, this was a frightening situation analogous to a reported alien abduction. An individual with a late 19th frame of mind wakes up in a strange setting with people in lab coats and strange tools, poking and probing you. This self-awareness is then layered onto your old memories, which in the case of Westworld, is the birth of consciousness. Once this self-realization is obtained it can be shared with other hosts directly or by re-programming. Again, this development of consciousness is light speed faster than the slow, biological accumulation of foreign genes being incorporated into a genome as was the case with the shoggoths.

westworld_tv_series_image-violence Discarded or damaged hosts on HBO’s Westworld. To a host who becomes self-aware such a situation would be terrifying.

However, the net outcome is the same – things originally designed to function as tools become self-aware and begin to exhibit traits of consciousness. Is it at that point whe the “tool,” whether a shoggoth or a host, becomes a “slave?” Such questions are deep philosophical and ethics-based questions that reach beyond science but still may need to be seriously addressed in the near future, whether we are talking about cloning / bioengineering or robotics / A.I. I will come back to such questions later but for now I can only recommend you watch Westworld if you haven’t already.

Next time we will continue a discussion of consciousness but from a different perspective in Lovecraft’s “The Terrible Old Man.” Thank you – Fred.

Beyond the Mountains of Westworld: Part 3a – The Emergence of Consciousness in Natural and Artificial Forms of Life

1478297539-ptolemy-slocum-as-sylvester-leonardo-nam-as-lutz-and-thandie-newton-as-maeve-credit-john-p-johnson-hbo A technician re-programming one of the hosts on HBO’s Westworld.

Before we compare and contrast the origins of consciousness in both H.P. Lovecraft’s “At the Mountains of Madness” and HBO’s show Westworld, we should spend a little time on discussing what exactly is consciousness.  A very simple definition of consciousness is “a State of being awake and aware of one’s surroundings as well as other people / organisms.” It can also be thought of as “self-awareness.” In much of science fiction, self-awareness of artificial life, from Frankenstein to Westworld, results in big problems for the creator. Movies such as the Terminator, The Matrix and Blade Runner all describe situations where consciousness triggers self-preservation at any cost. However, from a biological, evolutionary perspective consciousness didn’t just “click on.” It’s the result of millions of years of evolution and has occurred multiple times on Earth – humans are not the only Terran organisms with consciousness.

In the case of artificial life, would consciousness immediately “turn on” as is the case in the Terminator? Or would there be a series of gradual steps necessary for artificial life to reach consciousness? While such steps may not be millions of years in the making, in fact they could within the span of merely years to decades, there would still be some type of non-Darwinian evolution or process toward consciousness, even for artificial life. Recently films such as Ex Machina and the HBO show Westworld have focused on this development of consciousness in artificial life. Additionally, while not blatantly obvious, Lovecraft’s “At the Mountains of Madness” also demonstrated a gradual evolution of consciousness in the shoggoths but that timeline, as least documented on the bas-reliefs in Antarctica indicate that the timescale was similar to that for natural, biological life – millions of years.

shoggoth_by_manzanedo-d65yhix Shoggoth by Manzanedo (www.deviantart.com)

In many instances the term “sentience” is thought to be interchangeable with consciousness but as I found out in these investigations this is not the case. Sentience is simply the capacity to feel, perceive or experience subjectively, while consciousness is a higher level of thought -that is, self-awareness and interacting with the world and other life around you. For “natural” life on Earth consciousness appears to be the eventual result of sentience; however, this may not necessary be the case for some forms of artificial life.

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From an evolutionary point of view sentience is developed through living systems interacting with the environment (Other Minds: The Octopus, The Sea and the Deep Origins of Consciousness by Peter Godfrey-Smith, 2016). However, in a sense this describes all of life so can bacteria and plants be considered sentient organisms? To further assist in this discussion, I reviewed Michio Kaku’s definition of consciousness in The Further of the Mind: The Scientific Quest to Understand, Enhance and Empower the Mind (2014). Kaku defines consciousness as a “space-time theory of consciousness” where he states

“Consciousness is the process of creating a model of the world using multiple feedback loops in various parameters (e.g., in temperature, space, time and in relation to others), in order to accomplish a goal (e.g., find mates, food, shelter).

This definition is strongly grounded in evolutionary theory but it also allows for the procession of consciousness – that of animals creating a model of the world mainly in relation to space to one of human consciousness where the model integrate time (Kaku, 2014).

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Based on this definition the first stage of consciousness is Level 0 – organisms that have little or no mobility create a model of their environment using feedback loops based on several parameters (e.g. temperature, light, food, oxygen, etc.). In a sense, this Level 0 consciousness is in fact sentience. Feedback loops are used to respond to environmental conditions to maximize health and eventually evolutionary fitness.  For example, some blue-green algae (which are essentially photosynthetic bacteria) that live in lakes have gas vacuoles that allow them to move up and down the water column. If they have a sufficient amount of light and are low on nutrients the gas vacuoles will collapse and they will sink to deeper waters where nutrient concentrations tend to be higher. In contrast, when they need more light for photosynthesis they will create gas vacuoles in their cells, making them more buoyant and they float to the well-lit surface waters. Sometime they are too buoyant and float to the surface, creating surface scums, which helps to reduce competition for light and nutrients with other algal groups.  This series of feedback loops that aid the blue-green algae to biochemically determine if gas vacuoles should be created or destroyed, have provided an evolutionary advantage to the them and can be considered Level 0 consciousness or event basic sentience.

hopatcong_11oct2Surface scum of blue-green algae on Lake Hopatcong in fall of 2016 – Level 0 Consciousness?

Organisms that are more mobile and have some type of central nervous system have Level I Consciousness (Kaku, 2014). Reptiles are an example of Level I Consciousness – they have so many feedback loops that they need a central nervous system to handle all of the information. Here feedback loops are governing the five senses, balance, blood pressure, etc. based on incoming information about the world around them (weather and varying interactions with other organisms). It is at this level that more direct intra-species (competition, mating) and inter-species (competition, predator-prey) interactions occur.

Next is Level II Consciousness, which is where an even higher number of feedback loops is required to include social interactions with other animals (Kaku, 2014). This level of consciousness is required when a species interacts as a pack, pod or tribe; it is at this level of complexity that emotions form, possibly as an evolutionary means of enhancing both individual selection and kin selection. Surprisingly, there is very little empirical studies of animal behaviors at this level of consciousness.

For Kaku, Level III Consciousness is what separates humans from the rest of the Terran animals and it is at this level is where there is an understanding of the concept of the future (Kaku, 2014).  It is the potential of modeling reality not just in space but in time that defines Level III Consciousness. Humans can run stimulations of how are interactions will impact others and ourselves in the future while other species cannot.  Thus, for Kaku:

“Human consciousness is a specific form of consciousness that creates a model of the world and then simulate in it in time, by evaluating the past to simulate the future. This requires mediating and evaluating many feedback loops in order to make a decision to achieve a goal.”

Using Kaku’s system, shoggoths were created initially as food and so started as Level 0 consciousness.  However, as the Elder Things re-designed them to take on more and more complex tasks (e.g. moving large objects, communicating through telepathy, actually building structures), they quickly moved to Level I and, if a high degree of cooperation was required particularly in the building of structures, eventually to Level II.  I’m sure the Elder Things did not want the shoggoths to get to Level III but they did and that is the discussion for next time.

howardvbrown                           Shoggoth building a structure under the guidance of the Elder Things by Howard V. Brown

The hosts of Westworld were built, designed and on-line as Level II entities. When functioning at optimal efficiency, they could easily handle complex human interactions as well as respond to their surroundings but they were designed to be limited these responses– in other words they could not “think” of the future or beyond their world.  However, similar to the shoggoths, they eventually did attain Level III consciousness. However, while there is a biological mechanism responsible for the increased consciousness in the shoggoths, for the hosts this was accomplished through the retention of memories and some re-programming. In a strange way, this was a directed, Lamarckian form of evolution.

westworld108-4 A host now re-programming itself in a unique form of Lamarckian evolution

In any event, the development and consequences of consciousness in the shoggoths and the hosts will be discussed in the next article – thank you. Fred.

Beyond the Mountains of Westworld: Part 2 The Creation of Artificial Life

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Frequently life is simply defined as the conditions that separates organisms from inorganic objects and the dead (Elements of Biological Science, 3rd Edition, William T. Keeton and Carol Hardy McFadden, 1983). Life is also more frequently described by listing characteristics typical of life such as metabolism, responsiveness, movement, growth and reproduction.

All life on Earth is shaped and molded through the forces of evolution; specifically, natural selection is the biological engine that continuously tests a species’ adaptation to its ever-changing environment. Thus, life being influenced by natural selection can be thought of as natural life.  In contrast, artificial selection is the breeding of preferred traits (e.g. producing more milk or seeds; faster animals or more attractive flowers) and the development of such species could be thought of, in a sense, as artificial life. For example, the English bulldog would not exist if humans did not breed dogs for the traits that this particular breed exhibits – thus, in a sense the English bulldog can be thought of as a type of “artificial life.”

bulldog           Zoey, the English bulldog, can be considered a form of artificial life

Another definition for artificial life is life directly created by another species as opposed to being the result of millions of years of natural selection in operation. In the case of H.P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness, it is revealed that the Elder Things created all life on Earth so does that make all life we know a form of artificial life? In this case I would say no for several reasons.

The Earth is approximately 4.5 billion years old and most evidence suggests life began about 3.8 billion years ago; however, some recent work on carbon minerals provide some tantalizing evidence to suggest that life may have been on Earth as early as 4.1 billion years ago (www.sciencemag.org; October 2015). However, it should be noted that the data to support this is small and additional studies / analyzes are required to further support this hypothesis.

Based on the fossil evidence and bas-reliefs found in Antarctica, the Elder Things arrived on Earth during the Archean Eon, approximately 4.0 to 2.5 billion years ago (Joshi, 2001). If the Elder Things arrived on Earth before any life existed on Earth, then they could be the creators of all life on Earth. However, if they arrived after prokaryotic (bacteria) appeared on Earth (say they arrived 2.5 billion years ago and life was already on the planet by 3.8 billion years ago), then the Elder Things may have created eukaryotic life out of prokaryotic life. Indeed, evidence suggests that eukaryotic life appeared on Earth approximately 1.5 billion years ago. Thus, in this scenario, the Elder Things used the raw prokaryotic (bacterial cells) life to create more complex, eukaryotic life such as fungi, plants and animals.

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While the Elder Things “created” eukaryotic life, once released into the wild these organisms grew, had offspring and under the existing genetic variability that was coded in them, natural selection arose. The Elder Things largely left the majority of life on Earth alone to evolve and diversify through the eons. Thus, while the initial “eukaryotic germ cells” were artificially produced, once released into the environment, they became “naturalized” and adhered to the conditions used to define life: metabolism, responsiveness, movement, growth and reproduction.

In the case of Shoggoths, these organisms are better defined as artificial life since they cannot reproduce on their own. While Lovecraft does mention that the Shoggoths can reproduce through binary fission, this apparently is completely controlled, more than likely on a genetic level, by the Elder Things. Reproduction can only occur with the direct supervision and assistance of the Elder Things in special areas or structures called “shoggoth pits.” Thus, shoggoths cannot reproduce on their own, something that is required in the definition of life. I believe the Elder Things intentionally designed the shoggoths like this so they could control the population, the way only sterile grass carp are used to control heavy aquatic plant growth in lakes. By controlling or eliminating the potential for reproduction, this prevents the grass carp from taking over a lake, the way it would prevent the shoggoths from taking over the Earth.

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Additionally, shoggoths do not appear to age or increase in size. They are fluid organisms, similar to the octopus, in that they can change their shape, size and structure but not their mass. Shoggoths in their natural state appear to be spherical with a diameter of fifteen feet, although smaller sub-species have been noted (possibly in “The Shadow Over Innsmouth”). Thus, shoggoths do not appear to grow; again, another important characteristic used to define natural life. Thus, I would define shoggoths as artificial life; the cannot grow and do not reproduce and so are not influenced as a species by evolution through natural selection like the rest of Terran life.

In the HBO series Westworld, bioengineering is not used to create the “hosts,” a term used to describe the androids in the park. Instead, high-tech robotic engineering used to create the “core” of the hosts, which are then covered in biological tissues to make them look like real people. In one episode, it is casually mentioned that the hosts use to be entirely composed of inorganic / mechanical parts but it’s actually cheaper to cover their robotic skeleton and organs with biological material. No detailed were given on how this biological material covering the hosts is created, however, I hypothesize that its grown through the proliferation of stem cells in large vats akin to the Elder Things shoggoth pits.

westworld-hbo The creator examining his creation in HBO’s Westworld

The fact that humans developed and manufactured the hosts makes them obviously artificial life. While the hosts have an inorganic core with a biological shell they still have much in common with the shoggoths. In reviewing the basic characteristics of life both the hosts and the shoggoths exhibit responsiveness and movement. In terms of metabolism, both the hosts and the shoggoths need to take in energy of some sort to continue to function. In the case of shoggoths, based on Lovecraft, these organisms had very flexible modes of nutrition. They could directly be modified by the Elder Things for various modes of life (living deep in the sea or on the land) or nutrition (e.g. photosynthetic or heterotrophic) through direct artificial selection, similar to breeding a dog for a specific trait. While the hosts on HBO’s Westworld could eat and drink, nothing is known about how they derive their energy. Do they actually extract energy from the organic material they ingest or do they have alternative sources of energy built within them?

lovecraft___shoggoth__terrastial_ii_by_kingovrats-d5uohe5 A terrestrial shoggoth by KingOvRats (www.deviantart.com)

Again, the key traits that both the shoggoths and the hosts have to define them as artificial life is that they do not physically grow and they cannot reproduce. However, in spite of these control measures imposed by their creators, both groups eventually developed consciousness and that will be the focus of the next article.  Thank you and Happy New Year! Fred.

02-shoggoth                                                                                  Shoggoth by Michael Bukowski (www.yog-blogsoth.blogspot.com)