Tag Archives: science

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.”

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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.

H.P. Lovecraft and the Pseudoscientific Study of Racism

HPLovecraft_by_LeeMoyer_www.strangehorizons.com                                                                                   H.P. Lovecraft by Lee Moyer (www.strangehorizons.com)

I have always been appreciated how H.P. Lovecraft introduced the most up-to-date scientific developments into his fiction and cosmic philosophy. Additionally, he was more than willing to adjust his viewpoint, perspective and even philosophy on science based on the latest scientific findings. Time and again he exhibited this whether it was the confirmation that Antarctica is composed of one, not two land masses or the discovery of Yuggoth (known to many as Pluto). Another example of this is Lovecraft’s changing attitudes toward Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity.

einstein_360x450_www.laphamsquarterly.orgAlbert Einstein (www.laphamsquarterly.org)

Like many astronomers of the time Lovecraft was very skeptical of the Theory of General Relativity. However, with the accumulation of evidence over the years, by 1923 Lovecraft acknowledged that relativity was a valid and tested theory. As a materialist Lovecraft’s initial attitude was one of dismay, saying the theory “…removes the last hold which reality or the universe can have on the independent mind. All is change, accident, and ephemeral illusion…” Lovecraft went on to say, “All the cosmos is a jest, and one thing is as true as another. I believe everything and nothing—for all is chaos, always had been, and always will be.” However, Lovecraft’s pessimistic attitude on how relativity impacted his philosophy was eventually replaced with a more harmonized perspective, incorporating Einstein’s ideas into his materialistic view of the cosmos (I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H.P. Lovecraft by Joshi, 2014). Again this is another example of how Lovecraft’s perspective, and even philosophy, of reality and the universe would change based on accumulating evidence. However, the one component of science where Lovecraft’s attitude would remain unchanged, even in the light and consideration of accumulating scientific evidence, is that of the study of anthropology and race.

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As cited by Joshi, in spite of all of the accumulating evidence, H.P. Lovecraft still believed in the biological inferiority of certain races of humanity (Joshi, 2014). Indeed, such abhorrent attitudes were by no means unusual in the early 20th century whatever the accumulating scientific data revealed; in the 1920’s many leading scientists warned that interracial mixing of the races could lead to biological abnormalities (Joshi, 2014). However, through the 20th century the “scientific” justification for racism was demonstrated to be false. In spite of this, such concepts would appear in several of Lovecraft’s earlier stories such as “the Lurking Fear.”

As cited by Joshi (2014), Lovecraft held his racist attitudes in spite of the most up-to-date findings on the study of humanity and race in the fields of biology and anthropology. All of the “scientific” studies that provided evidence for a hierarchy of races with Caucasians and the top and Australian aborigines at the bottom, were largely discredited as pseudoscience by the early 20th century. Indeed, as early the 19th century studies that have attempted to correlate “race-based” size and shape of the skull to some type of racial hierarchy were considered highly unscientific and preposterous (Joshi, 2014). By the early 1930’s any scientific justification for such racism was largely discredited by the scientific community; such efforts were led by the anthropologist Franz Boas.

FranzBoas                                                               Frank Boas (www.wikipedia.org)

Born in Germany, Franz Boas had a doctorate in physics and studied geography; however, once he emigrated to the U.S. he became a professor of anthropology at Columbia University. He had a distinguished career at Columbia, being called “the Father of American Anthropology.” One of the key components Boas used in identifying the nonsensical perspective in scientifically justifying racism was to show that the cranial index (the ratio of the maximum width of one’s head multiplied by 100 and then divided by its maximum length of the head from front to back) varies widely both among adults within a single group as well as within the life of an individual (The Mismeasure of Man by Stephen Jay Gould, revised and expanded edition, 1996). Even more important Boas identified significant differences between immigrant parents and their American-born children. The fact that such a change can be significantly measured within a single generation indicated that changes in environment (diet, health, surroundings, etc.) is as important or even more so than one’s race (better described as genetics) in dictating the cranial index (Gould, 1996).

theartofseanpillips.blogspot.comH.P. Lovecraft by Sean Phillips (www.theartofseanphillips.com)

While Joshi found no evidence of Lovecraft reading or being familiar with any of Boas’s work, Lovecraft had to frequently defend his racist views to his younger correspondents such as Frank Belknap Long and J. Vernon Shea. Why the augments of these younger acquaintances did not convince Lovecraft to, at least from a scientific basis, examine some of the more modern developments in anthropology and reconsider his thoughts on the pseudoscience of scientific racism is unknown (Joshi, 2014). Lovecraft’s “scientific” racist views were largely based on the writings of some 19th century scientists such as Ernst Haeckel. However, psychologically Lovecraft’s view was firmly rooted in his fear of the “other” or those who did not originate from his beloved New England and/or fit into his world-view. One wonders if Lovecraft lived longer and observed the scientific and cultural changes in attitudes toward race, would his have changed as well, particularly after World War II.

Lovecraft’s pseudoscientific understanding of race was certainly explored in many of his tales, particularly in his earlier ones. One of note, “The Lurking Fear”, discusses the evolutionary degeneration of a family due to out-of-class breeding and subsequent incest (Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos by Bobby Dee, 2014). While in this case the “horror” associated with this is based on breeding out-of-class, this can also be associated with the implication that one is also breeding out-of-race, with the result being mammalian degeneration. Again, most of the horror associated with this tale is not based on science but pseudoscience, which will be discussed in detail in an upcoming article.

h_p__lovecraft_s_the_lurking_fear_by_cheesecake_weasel-d624gkrH.P. Lovecraft’s The Lurking Fear by Cheesecake Weasel (www.deviantart.com)

In addition to Lovecraft’s “selective” view of race from a scientific perspective, his review of race also generates an inherent conflict in his cosmic and materialistic philosophy. If we are all just composed of a complex of physical and biochemical reactions, housed within a foundation of honeycombed cells filled with water and associated protoplasm, the color of our skin or hair should be absolutely trivial. While Lovecraft was not familiar with Boas, he did read Modern Science and Materialism by Hugh Samuel Roger Elliot (originally published in 1919), which Joshi clearly documents had a profound influence on the development of Lovecraft’s cosmic / materialist view of the universe (Joshi, 2014). This influence, both on Lovecraft’s philosophy and attitudes toward race, will be the topic of conversation in the next article.

Finally, thank you to everyone who has contributed to the Kickstarter for the “Journal of Lovecraftian Science, Volume 2.” We made our goal and I will add a stretch goal sometime next week. If you are interested in supporting this project, please check the site out at https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1081353216/journal-of-lovecraftian-science-volume-two. Again, thank you to all how have contributed! Fred.

Journal of Lovecraftian Science, Volume 2 – the Lovecraftian Solar System

Hello everyone – just wanted to let you know that Steve Maschuck and I launched another Kickstarter – this one is for the Journal of Lovecraftian Science, Volume 2 and focuses exclusively on the Lovecraftian Solar System. If you are interested please check it out at https://www.kickstarter.com/…/journal-of-lovecraftian-scien…

Thank you. Fred

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Lovecraft, Astrology and Superstition

For how much Lovecraft loved Astronomy, he found Astrology completely ridiculous calling it a pseudo-science.  In fact, he actually felt stronger than that.  Check out this quote, the first paragraph in his letter “Science versus Charlatanry”, from Joshi’s Collected Essays, Volume 3 (2005):

“It is an unfortunate fact that every man who seeks to disseminate knowledge must contend not only against ignorance itself, but against false instruction as well.  No sooner do we deem ourselves free from a particularly gross superstition, than we are confronted by some enemy to learning who would set aside all the intellectual progress of years, and plunge us back into the darkness of mediaveal disbelief.”  HPL

This letter was submitted to The Evening News and was specifically addressed to Mr. Hartmann, a proponent of Astrology.

As described by Joshi, the Evening News published a series of letters by both Lovecraft and Hartmann on Astrology and its value (if any, other than a footnote of human superstition that was originally entwined with Astronomy).

As sort of an extreme Astronomical version of Richard Dawkins, not only did Lovecraft say that Astrology is not a true science since it does not follow the same methodology and logic, he also stated that those who preach or push Astrology will drag humanity into a “new dark age”, which is funny because in the opening quote from Call of Cthulhu, Lovecraft said that if we are not careful science will do the exact same thing!  However, two major differences, Call of Cthulhu is fiction and second the opening quote is a warning about how the misuse of science can negatively impact humanity, where with Astrology Lovecraft says taking it serious will undermine all of our scientific and technological effort to date (ceria the early 20th century).

To say Lovecraft had absolutely no tolerance for people who believed in Astrology or any other concept of Superstition would be an understatement.  In his notes for “The Cancer of Superstition”, which was to be a book arguing against superstition to be commissioned by Harry Houdini, Lovecraft said “Lack of all scientific basis – persists only through mental indolence of those who neglect to assimilate and correlate results of modern science.” Again, this is from Joshi’s Collected Essays Vol. 3.

Based on that quote above, you get the impression that according to Lovecraft if you could not use or understand science, you were being lazy.  Thus, the “lazy alternative” to the hard work of science was superstition.  Given Lovecraft’s love for Astronomy, one can certainly understand how the popularity of Astrology must have really annoyed him.  This gave rise to his scathing letters criticizing both Mr. Hartmann and Astrology as a whole.

Fred

Beginning of Lovecraftian Science

INTRODUCTION TO LOVECRAFTIAN SCIENCE

Hey everyone – I created this blog in response to the very positive experience I had at the Necronomicon just a few days ago in Providence, RI.  Everyone was wonderful, the experience was fantastic and Niels Hobbs, the coordinator of the convention, should be congratulated by everyone who attended and participated.  It was  a lot of fun and as a result of that experience, I feel like continuing to contribute to the Lovecraftian community as a whole.

At the convention, I gave a talk on the biology of some of the Old Ones and I received some positive input from the participates.  I would like to continue to investigate Lovecraftian Science as a whole (biology, astronomy, chemistry, etc.) and I thought doing it through a blog would be the best means.

I will be talking about Lovecraft’s love for science, how he incorporated a wide variety of scientific theories  into his fiction and pose questions on how science would operate in Lovecraft’s world.  Based on existing text and essays, I will also identify how Lovecraft was a strong advocate and defender of science.  Finally, I will also compare Lovecraft’s attribute toward science to more contemporary scientists and writers.

I hope this blog also serves as an avenue for others to communicate and participate in this discussion.  Thank you.

Fred