Category Archives: Science

H.P. Lovecraft and the Influence Eclipses Had on Him

solar-eclipse-www.nj.com               The 21st August 2017 solar eclipse (www.nj.com)T

Last month’s total solar eclipse occurred on the 21st of August 2017, one day after H.P. Lovecraft’s birthday.  The last total solar eclipse through the continental United States before this year was 26 February 1979; before that the last total solar eclipse was on 8 June 1918.  Surprisingly I could find no reference to it in Lovecraft’s essays on astronomy. However, by 1918 Lovecraft was shifting the majority of his writing from astronomical observations to fiction. Lovecraft did note partial or total solar eclipses in April 1903, June 1908, June 1909, January 1916 and January 1917. He also noted a solar eclipse that was observed as a partial one in the northeastern part of the United States on 21st August 1914 (Joshi, 2004), 103 years before the one we just observed last month.

The last time Lovecraft reported on upcoming eclipses in his astronomical articles was in the 1 December 1917 edition of the Evening News.  In the article Lovecraft states, “Two eclipses will occur this month, an annular eclipse of the sun and total eclipse of the moon. The solar eclipse, which occurs on the 14th, will be invisible at Providence, but visible in the Antarctic regions and the southern parts of the American and Australian continents. The lunar eclipse falls on the 28th and will be generally visible here, except for the final emergence of the moon from the earth’s penumbra, which will take place after our satellite has set in the morning” (Joshi, 2004).

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Just for clarification, a lunar eclipse is where the sun, Earth and moon are aligned with Earth in the middle. During a total lunar eclipse, direct sunlight is completely blocked by the Earth’s shadow so the only light observed is that refracted through Earth’s shadow. Lunar eclipses give the moon a reddish color, sometimes called a blood moon, due to the scattering of more blue light and more red light being received by our eyes.

Luna-roja A lunar eclipse

In contrast, a solar eclipse such as the one that occurred last month, is when the sun, Earth and moon are aligned with the moon between the sun and the Earth. For a solar eclipse, this conjunction of the three bodies can only occur during a new moon, which is the first phase of the moon where it and the sun have the same elliptical longitude.

Solar_lunar_eclipse_diagram

While Lovecraft did not appear to officially document any more eclipses in astronomical articles after the end of 1917, he did note a time when he traveled to Boston to spend time with W. Paul Cook in late August 1932. They then went to Newburyport to see a total solar eclipse.  Lovecraft noted “The landscape did not change in tone until the solar crescent was rather small, & then a kind of sunset vividness became apparent. When the crescent waned to extreme thinness, the scene grew strange & spectral – an almost deathlike quality inhering in the sickly yellowish light” (Joshi, 2014).

It should be noted a particular solar eclipse did contribute toward a major change in Lovecraft’s view of the Cosmos, specifically in reference to Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity. Isaacs Newton and physicists since him have described gravity as a force – and this concept works well when describing the motions of planets and other “large” bodies. However, Einstein said gravity was the result of a distortion in space-time, created by the presence of mass (Farndon, 2007). Thus, the larger the mass of the object, the greater the distortion.

BLOG_www.solar-eclipse.earth_einstein_1140w483_300dpi-min_1Gravity being the result of distortions in space-time due to mass (www.solar-eclipse.earth) 

When Einstein initially proposed this idea most of the scientific community did not think much of the hypothesis. Like many of Einstein’s ideas, it was very strange and his calculations were difficult to follow. A key point to Einstein’s idea was that everything would be impacted by these distortions, even light. Einstein knew that no one would take his idea seriously if it could not be empirically tested and validated. In the spring of 1919, the astronomer Sir Arthur Eddington took photographs during a solar eclipse – which is the only time that stars can be seen during the day. His results confirmed that the light of a star did indeed shift or “bend” when it passed close to the Sun. This shift was almost exactly as Einstein predicted.

Negative_photo_of_the_1919_solar_eclipse_medium                                                                                          Negative photo of the 1919 solar eclipse, which confirmed Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity

The confirmation of the Theory of General Relativity through the collection of empirical data during a solar eclipse had a profound impact on Lovecraft’s philosophical view of the Cosmos. For example, in a letter to his friend James F. Morton, Lovecraft stated that Einstein’s Theory of Relativity throws our world and perception of reality into chaos, making the cosmos a jest or as he put it: “All the cosmos is a jest, and fit to be treated only as a jest, and one thing is as true as another” (S.T. Joshi’s I Am Providence:  The Life and Times of H.P. Lovecraft from Hippocampus Press, 2013).

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While initially Lovecraft actually appears a little distressed over the confirmation of the Theory of General Relativity, he did eventually come to terms with its concepts as demonstrated in his fiction. While some have been critical of Lovecraft’s use or distorted use of Einstein’s Theories in his fiction, it was still innovative story writing at the time – using cutting edge physics and science in horror fiction. Some of the most interesting “connections” recognized by Lovecraft and incorporated into this cosmic fiction included the importance of non-Euclidean geometry and math in a “curved space-time” Einsteinian universe. Thus, of all of the solar eclipses Lovecraft documented in his life, the one off the west coast of Africa on 29th of May 1919 probably had the largest impact on him as a writer.

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Next time we will discuss the one story of Lovecraft’s where an eclipse was an important component of the tale – The Other Gods. Thank you – Fred.

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How the Universe Expanded in H.P. Lovecraft’s Lifetime: Part 3, Beyond the Mountains of Madness

Hubble shears a "woolly" galaxy A previously unidentified “woolly galaxy” found by the Hubble Telescope (www.nasa.gov).

As we previously discussed, H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Whisperer in Darkness” may have been the “keystone” tale in which the Universe expanded from one island galaxy into one including hundreds of millions, if not billions, of galaxies. This expanded view of the Universe largely stems from Edwin Hubble’s confirmation that many observed gaseous nebulae are actually entire galaxies, as well as his discovery that the Universe is expanding at an accelerated rate. While “The Whisperer in Darkness” (written in early 1930) have been the tale where Lovecraft first introduced this expanding view of the Universe, largely through the perspective of the Mi-Go, the idea of multiple galaxies was firmly established by the time he wrote At the Mountains of Madness in early 1931.

As Dyer and Danforth were examining the bas-reliefs of the Elder Things they found a section that represented “…the preterrestrial life of the star-headed beings on other planets, in other galaxies, and in other universes…”. Thus, not only is a universe filled with galaxies but the concept of a multiverse was also identified by Lovecraft. It is interesting to note that At the Mountains of Madness was not the first reference Lovecraft made to more than one universe in his stories. This is not particularly surprising since as we previously stated before Hubble’s discoveries, the Milky Way Galaxy was considered the Universe; thus, one could easily extrapolate and consider the presence of more than only galaxy-universe. However, the concept of the multiverse and how Lovecraft understood it will be discussed in future articles.

lovecraft elder2 Elder Thing by Steve Maschuck

In “The Dreams in the Witch-House” Walter Gilman talks about how with the use of higher mathematics one can travel through Space-Time by finding a passage out of our 3-dimensional space-sphere and then re-entering at another point within our space-sphere. While the travel itself would not kill the traveler, one would have to make sure that the point of re-entry is favorable conditions for life (e.g. enough oxygen to breath, minimal amount of radiation, temperature concerns, etc.). Following this Gilman hypothesized that “Denizens of some planets might be able to live on certain others – even planets belonging to other galaxies or to similar dimensional phases of other space-time continua…”. Again, Lovecraft clearly embraces the idea of many galaxies in our universe.

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In “Through the Gates of the Silver Key,” co-written with E. Hoffmann Price, Randolph Carter is attempting to understand how there can be other forms of his “self” – human and non-human, vertebrate and invertebrate, conscious and mindless, animal and vegetable. He goes on to say, “And more, there were “Caters” having nothing in common with earthly life, but moving outrageously amidst backgrounds of other planets, systems and galaxies and cosmic continua.” Later, when Carter’s mind enters a Yaddithian wizard’s body, he has access to light-beam envelope technology that can transport him through space-time to other worlds spread throughout the 28 galaxies accessible to the light-beam. It is not yet understood if this limitation to 28 galaxies is simply a spatial limitation or if the Yaddithian technology to allow the light-beams to be transmitted is only found in these 28 galaxies.

lovecraft___zkauba__yaddithian_ii_by_kingovrats-d9sn1hl                    The Yaddithian wizard Zkauba by KingOvRats (www.deviantart.com)

In The Shadow Out of Time, Nathaniel Wingate Peaslee attempted to understand the information provided to him on how the Earth was once inhibited by entities far more advanced than humans, millions of years ago. Some came from the stars while others evolved on Earth from the eukaryotic cell lines bioengineered by the Elder Things. Some of these life forms existed for thousands of millions of years and had linkages to other galaxies and universes. By the time Lovecraft wrote “Collapsing Cosmos” with R.H. Barlow, there were a reported total of 37 galaxies in our immediate universe.

Finally, in one of Lovecraft’s last tales, “The Haunter of the Dark,” at the end of that tale when Robert Blake is recording his last thoughts will waiting for the Haunter to visit him during the black-out he writes, “Trouble with memory. I see things. I never knew before. Other worlds and other galaxies… Dark… The lightning seems dark and the darkness seems light…”. For Robert Blake, staring into the shining trapezohedron provided a more realistic perspective of the Cosmos.

haunter_RachaelMayo The Haunter by Rachael Mayo

While Edwin Hubble discovered that our universe is not limited to the Milky Way and that other galaxies exist, I believe both he and Lovecraft would be amazed to know that just a few years ago the Hubble Space Telescope estimated that there are nearly 100 billion galaxies in the known Universe. However, just last year Hubble’s Ultra Deep Field survey revealed that volumes of space once thought empty are literally teeming with galaxies. Thus, while the most recent observations estimate that the observable Universe contains approximately 200 billion galaxies, studies from 2016 indicate that this estimate is at least 10 times too low. Thus, even Lovecraft’s 28 to 37 local cluster of galaxies may be an infinitesimally tiny fraction of the true structure of the Universe.

p1639ay-goodss-160930 Areas of space once thought empty have been revealed to be filled with galaxies by the Hubble surveys (www.nasa.gov).

Next time we will discuss eclipses in Lovecraft’s astronomical writings and his stories. Thank you – Fred.

How the Universe Expanded in H.P. Lovecraft’s Lifetime: Part 2, The Whisperer in Darkness

o-HUBBLE-UV-1000A view through the Hubble telescope of thousands of galaxies in one small patch of space

As previously discussed, while H.P. Lovecraft was writing his astronomical articles in the early 20th century, primarily between 1906 to 1918 (Collected Essays Volume 3: Science H.P. Lovecraft, edited by S.T. Joshi, 2005), the Galaxy was essentially thought of as our Universe.  However, on 30 December 1924 when Edwin Hubble publicly announced the discovery of other galaxies, the perception of our Universe substantially increased in size.  Searching through Lovecraft’s fiction, his collection of essays associated with Science (Joshi, 2005) and Joshi’s biography on Lovecraft, I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H.P. Lovecraft (Joshi, 2013), I could find no specific reference to Hubble.  However, I have not reviewed all of his letters so Lovecraft may have mentioned Hubble there.  This significant change in our view of the Universe from an Island Galaxy in a starless void to an expanding Universe filled with billions of galaxies, does seem to creep into Lovecraft’s later fiction. Part of this is due to when Hubble made his announcement in late 1924 and part of this due to changes in Lovecraft’s style in writing and his subject matter.

In Lovecraft’s early tales, from 1917 to 1920-21, there is almost no mention of the word galaxy. The exception was a passing reference in “From Beyond,” written in 1920, where once the Tillinghast machine is turned on the protagonist was describing what he observed which included “I seemed for an instant to behold a patch of strange night sky filled with shining revolving spheres, and as it receded I saw that the glowing suns formed a constellation or galaxy of settled shape; this shape being the distorted fact of Crawford Tillinghast.” Even here the word “galaxy” is being used as a descriptive term or metaphysical point of view rather than as a purely scientific term.

It would not be until “The Whisperer in Darkness,” written in 1930, that Lovecraft would use the word galaxy from a scientific perspective. Indeed, this tale may be a pivotal point for Lovecraft in his view of both the Cosmos and cosmic horror and the word “galaxy” may be an indicator of this.

lvcrft_by_terrordelacomarca-d96cprzThe Whisperer in Darkness, artwork by Terrordelacomarca (www.deviantart.com)

The first time the word galaxy is used in “The Whisperer in Darkness” is in a letter Henry Wentworth Akeley writes to Albert N. Wilmarth, professor of literature and folklore at Miskatonic University. In it Akeley is documenting his encounters with the Mi-Go in his remote farmhouse in upstate Vermont. In the letter Akeley states that they Mi-Go may be talking to him, although he also questions whether this is a dream or if he is going mad. At one point Akeley states, “They don’t mean to let me get to California now – they want to take me off alive, or what theoretically and mentally amounts to alive – not only to Yuggoth but beyond that – away outside the galaxy and possibly beyond the last curved rim of space.” This description sounds like the old “one galaxy – one universe” hypothesis proposed by Sir William Herschel and discussed by Lovecraft in some of his astronomical articles (Joshi, 2005).

In sharp contrast to the first time the word galaxy is used, later when “pseudo-Akeley” is speaking with Wilmarth at the farmhouse he states, “There is nothing they [the Mi-Go] can’t do with the mind and body of living organisms. I expect to visit other planets and even other stars and galaxies.” Here Lovecraft is obviously conveying the multiple galaxies in one Universe view, which was firmly established in the scientific community by 1925. So, was this simply a minor grammatical slip up? Or in the tale did the Mi-Go reveal to Akeley and later to Wilmarth, that the Universe was composed of billions of galaxies? Remember according to Akeley the Mi-Go wanted humanity to discover Yuggoth, known to humans as Pluto, on 18th February 1930. Perhaps they were also revealing or at least confirming what Hubble found five years earlier, that the Universe is not simply the Milky Way Galaxy.

the_dreamer_by_brett_neufeld-dbhg32hThe Dreamer by Brett Neufeld

Later, pseudo-Akeley talks about some of the entities in the Mi-Go cylinders, stating that three are human, six are fungoid beings who can’t navigate space corporeally and two are from Neptune. He then states that the rest are “…from the central caverns of an especially interesting dark star beyond the galaxy.” Based on this statement this dark star is out of the Milky Way but not necessarily found in another galaxy.

It is interested that Lovecraft identifies a dark star. Based on Newtonian physics a dark star is a theoretical body of such large mass that any light it emits is trapped by its own gravity resulting in a “dark” star. Eventually, this term dark star was replaced by “black hole” (The Hidden Reality: Parallel Universes and the Deep Laws of the Cosmos by Brain Greene, 2011). However, a dark star is also categorized as a proto-star that may have existed in the early Universe before conventional stars were able to form. This type of dark star would be composed largely of normal matter but would also have a relatively high amount of neutralino dark matter. Such dark stars would be composed of clouds of hydrogen and helium with a diameter substantially larger in size than conventional stars. Such dark stars would have a diameter of 4 to 2,000 astronomical units (AUs). Remember, 1 AU is the distance from the Earth to the Sun. In addition, such dark stars would have a surface temperature low enough that the emitted radiation would be invisible to the naked eye. Would such temperatures be conducive for the development and evolution of life?

MikeDubischwww.themikedubischsketchbook.blogspot.com_lovecraft-cthulhu-hp-lovecraft                                        Old Ones from a Dark Star by Mike Dubisch (www.themikedubischsketchbook.blogspot.com)

Back to “The Whisperer in Darkness” in speaking to Akeley, the human in the Mi-Go cylinder states, “Do you realise what it means when I say I have been on thirty-seven different celestial bodies – planets, dark stars, and less definable objects – including eight outside our galaxy and two outside the curved cosmos of space time?” This statement – outside our galaxy and outside the curved space-time – mirrors Akeley’s earlier statement in his letter to Wilmarth. While it may appear that Lovecraft is flip-flopping in the idea of the Universe being composed on the Milky Way or of billions of galaxies, I hypothesize that this was intentional. When a human speaks about the Universe, whether it is Akeley or the human mind in the cylinder, the older concept of the Milky Way essentially being the Universe is cited. However, when pseudo-Akeley speaks about the Universe, it is clear the Mi-Go know the Universe is substantially larger and filled with billions of galaxies. I think this conveys the fact that the Mi-Go have a better understanding of the cosmos than humans.

whisperer                              The Whisperer in Darkness (Nyarlathotep) – the pseudo-Akeley by Michael Bukowski (www.yog-blogsoth.blogspot.com)

Next time we will continue to discuss how Lovecraft uses the word galaxy in his later tales. Thank you – Fred.

How the Universe Expanded in H.P. Lovecraft’s Lifetime, Part 1

In the year 964, the Persian astronomer al-Sufi (Azophi) described a “little cloud” in the constellation of Andromeda. This is one of the first documented observations in human history of another galaxy (To Explain the World: The Discovery of Modern Science by Steven Weinberg, 2016).  However, it would not be until the early 20th century when this little cloud would be recognized as the Galaxy Andromeda, also known as Messier 31, M31 or NGC 224.

07_Abd_al-Rahman_al-Sufi Abd al Rahman al Sufi, Persian astronomer, illustrated by Felix Leon.

In the early 20th century the Universe was a lot smaller.  In 1915 the Universe was thought to consist of a single and static galaxy – the Milky Way (Einstein’s Cosmos: How Albert Einstein’s Vision Transformed Our Understanding of Space and Time by Michio Kaku, 2004).  However, through Einstein’s Theory of Relativity and the observations of the red shift by Edward Hubble, the Universe was found to be expanding at an accelerated speed. In addition, advances in telescope technology revealed that many of the celestial bodies identified as nebula or clusters, were actually galaxies. It was Hubble’s work in the 1920’s that finally squashed the theory of a one-galaxy universe. Within the span of a one year of Hubble’s research and observations, the Universe went from a single galaxy full of approximately hundred billion stars to billions of galaxies, each containing billions of stars (Kaku, 2004).

This monumental shift and expansion of the Universe – from one galaxy surrounded by nebula and clusters to one containing of billions of galaxies – occurred during Lovecraft’s lifetime and it interesting to note that there are some interesting references to this expansion in his fiction. However, when Lovecraft’s writings were chiefly astronomical in nature, from 1906 to 1918 (Collected Essays Volume 3: Science H.P. Lovecraft, edited by S.T. Joshi, 2005), the Galaxy was essentially thought of as our Universe is a starless, ether-filled void.

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In H.P. Lovecraft’s early astronomical writings he frequently used to word galaxy to describe the Universe. This idea that the Universe was essentially the Milky Way was proposed by Sir William Herschel (1738-1822), composer and astronomer best known for discovering the planet Uranus.

Lovecraft actually discussed Herschel’s observations that led to his Milky Way Universe hypothesis in his article “August Skies” in Providence Evening News, 1917 (Collected Essays Volume 3: Science H.P. Lovecraft, edited by S.T. Joshi, 2005). Based on Herschel’s observations most of the stars were found in a great circle or broad circular, roughly corresponding to the Galactic Plane.  Stars outside of this belt were said to be few and scattered (Joshi, 2005).  This let to Herschel to the hypothesis that “…the visible stellar universe to consist of an immense cluster of stars, the components disposed with moderate uniformity and the whole so shaped that it forms a thin flat disc of incredible magnitude, near whose centre lies our own solar system.” While his description of our home galaxy is fairly accurate, Hershel was incorrect in thinking our solar system in in the center.  In fact, as Carl Sagan has stated we are in the suburbs or countryside of the galaxy.  We are not in any important place in the Milky Way.

universetoday.com.sunmilkyway Our position in the Milky Way Galaxy (www.universetoday.com)

While the general thought in the early 20th century was that the Milky Way was essentially the Universe, Lovecraft did state in the same article cited above, “That most nebulae belong to our universe seems probable, thought it was once believed that they, as well as clusters, are other universe, or external Galaxies, as it were.” This paragraph in the 1917 article concludes with the following:

“Whether or not such things as other universes do exist, is a question of the highest interest, involving conceptions of the most awful grandeur. It is very likely that these colossal universes of suns are widely scattered through boundless space, though separated by such terrifying and abysmal distances that their light, sent on its way at the time of their creation, has not yet reached from one to the other. It were unless here to speak of the ultimate confines of space itself. If the monstrous distances dealt with in the ordinary study of astronomy be stupefying in their immensity, what may be said of infinity itself? The idea of a boundary to all space is even more repellent than the terrible conception of the illimitable.”

Frosty_Drew_Milky_Way_www.charlestowncitizens.org A view of the Milky Way in New England (www.charlestowncitizens.org)

Obviously as the quote above suggests, some of Lovecraft’s concepts on cosmic horror stem from his astronomical observations and investigations. In another article “Clusters and Nebulae” in the Ashville [N.C.] Gazette-New, 1915 (Joshi, 2005), Lovecraft states that about 1,000 nebulae have been recorded and a few are actually visible to the naked eye. One of these nebulae he mentions is Andromeda. Again, at the time Andromeda was identified as a nebula; however, we now know it’s a galaxy composed of approximately 1 trillion stars. Based on the latest observations made with the Hubble telescope there are approximately 100 billion galaxies in the universe, however, this number is more than likely to at least double with improvements in telescope technology.

m31_comolli_2193 The Andromeda Galaxy, also known as M31

In conclusion, when Lovecraft was writing his articles on astronomy, the Milky Way was considered to be an “island universe” surrounded by nebulae and clusters. However, on 30 December 1924 Edwin Hubble publicly announced the discovery of other galaxies, making our universe a much bigger place. This announcement must have had an incredible impact on Lovecraft; however, by the 1920’s he focused his writing on fiction instead of articles on astronomy. Next time we will discuss how Hubble’s radical change of our view of the universe permeated into Lovecraft’s later fiction. Thank you – Fred.

edwin_hubble_large_bbci.co.uk          Edwin Hubble (www.bbci.co.uk)

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.

imagemetaphysik

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.

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.