Materialism and a Scientific Philosophy in a Lovecraftian Universe

Cosmic Horror (from

The death of H.P. Lovecraft’s Grandfather Whipple Phillips, along with the loss of the family fortune and the need to move from his birthplace, drove HPL to consider suicide when he was 13 years old.  As S.T. Joshi cites in his extensive biography of HPL I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H.P. Lovecraft (S.T. Joshi, 2013), this was apparently the only time HPL considered suicide.  After riding his bike to the Barrington River and contemplating throwing hims into the weedy-waters, he decided against it.  It was not his remaining family ties, religious beliefs or his desire to be a writer, that prevented him from killing himself.  It was scientific curiosity that prevented H.P. Lovecraft from committing suicide in 1904.

Barrington River, Rhode Island (

HPL admitted in a letter, cited by S.T. Joshi, that it was scientific curiosity and a sense of world drama that prevent him from killing himself. The scientific curiosity is self-explanatory; the word drama appears to refer to both world geography and history. Some of the questions that “baffled” HPL included how sediment stratification eventually leads to granite peaks, exactly what the upcoming Antarctic expeditions would find, when did people stop speaking Latin and start speaking other languages, and what occurred in other parts of the world, other than Britain and France, during the Middle Ages. HPL asked larger questions in this letter such as “What of the vast gulfs of space outside all familiar lands – desert reaches hinted of by Sir John Mandeville & Marco Polo…Tartary, Thibet…What of unknown Africa?” (Joshi, 2013).

So intellectual curiosity, with a large part of this curiosity based on science, was what prevented HPL from  killing himself in the summer of 1904.  This is an important point when reading HPL’s stories and understanding his philosophy of life.  Many people see HPL fearing or detesting science, particularly due to his opening paragraph in “The Call of Cthulhu” that includes the line:

“…but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.”

Cthulhu rise on R’lyeh (by Ash3ray)

While many of HPL’s stories are cautionary – that delving into forbidden lore will only result in horrible outcomes – he had a love and fascination for science, having a healthy streak of optimistic skepticism that most scientists have.  This love and respect for science always came into view in his stories, where he was known to actually change the text of a story as new scientific information was presented to the public.  I have cited a number of these instances in previous articles.   While HPL had a love for pure science, science for the sake of learning and discovering new things about our planet and the universe, he did have an aversion to new technology and progress and this is where the old gent pined for life in the 18th century.

In terms of HPL’s view of the universe, he had a very mechanistic, materialistic philosophy, which was fundamentally based on the scientific approach.  Many authors, writers and philosophers  impacted HPL throughout his life including Haeckel and Schopenhauer; however, it appears that Hugh Elliot’s (1881-1930) principles of mechanistic materialism, outlined in his book Modern Science and Materialism, lays the groundwater for HPL’s view of the cosmos and reality (S.T. Joshi, 2013).  These of the three principles are briefly reviewed below, relative to HPL.

The first was the uniformity of law, which states that the sequence of cause and effect is constant throughout the universe.  While the emerging science of quantum mechanics appeared to violate this principle, such ideas could still be explained from the perspective of probabilities and stochastic models, in contrast to the simple deterministic models so well developed in previously endeavors, such as the Newtonian physics.  Also, there may be a complete set of laws to the cosmos but it doesn’t mean we understand them or will ever completely understand them.

The second was the denial of teleology, which is the idea that the cosmos is moving in a specific direction under the direction of a deity.  It is obvious from HPL’s stories and writing in general that he certainly denied any teleological view of the cosmos.  HPL thought of the universe as a giant machine operating but with not goal or purpose.  A machine that would eventually run down.

The third principle was the denial of any existence beyond that envisioned by physics and chemistry.  While many religious thinkers agreed wit this – that the soul or spirit can not be quantified –  HPL took this to mean exactly what Elliot was getting at; that there was no non-corporal after-life or existence.  Again, we may not completely understand or even perceive all of the laws of the cosmos; there may be other dimensions and realities; there may be other forms of life and look nothing like us or may not even be considered as biological life under our definitions, but all would be governed by the basic laws of physics and chemistry.

Joshi cites a statement made by Elliot that, “We cannot assumed that the Universe has only five qualities because we have only five senses.  We must assume, on the contrary, that the number of its qualities may be infinite, and that the more senses we had, the more we should discover about it.” (cited in S.T. Joshi’s I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H.P. Lovecraft).  This concept obviously made it way into a number of HPL’s stories such as “From Beyond” and “Beyond the Wall of Sleep.”

Another of HPL’s stories that incorporates such ideas will be discussed in the next article – “The Music of Erich Zann.”  Thank you – Fed.




9 thoughts on “Materialism and a Scientific Philosophy in a Lovecraftian Universe

  1. This was a stunning article and definitely the deepest. One of your finest yet. The materialistic views of H.P.L. are outlined clearly and perfectly in a completely Euclidean way.

    Can’t wait for “Erich Zann”.

  2. Very interesting. I am not sure, however, if the third principle (denial of any existence beyond that envisioned by physics and chemistry) is really expressed in Lovecraft´s fiction, with its examples of telepathy, body swapping, reincarnation, out of the body experiences and dream dimensions.

    1. Hey Pedro – good point but the key to point is that it might be envisioned by physics and chemistry but not understood by us (at least not yet). Over a hundred years ago quantum mechanics and particle physics would have been thought of as magic or fiction. As Arthur C. Clarke once said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Thus, while telepathy, body swapping, reincarnation, etc. may seem like they are beyond physics and chemistry, it may the result of our lack of understanding. In Michio Kaku’s book, The Future of the Mind, he mentions that it may be possible in the future to download our consciousness into “way stations” in space, to eventually be beamed into other bodies (organic or otherwise). Based on existing physics and chemistry this may be possible. As Kaku says, if it does not violate physics then it just up to the engineers to figure out. In fact, I used some of Kaku’s ideas to explain how the Great Race may transfer minds with other entities (body swapping) as Lovecraft describes in The Shadow Out of Time. Thus, even the dream dimensions may not violate the third principle, if the sufficiently understood. Thank you for the input! Fred.

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