Thursday, November 17, 2011

Lovecraftian Horror and Pragmatism

I’ve referred to Lovecraftian horror a number of times in this blog and this calls for some explanation. To see the relevance of Lovecraft to the philosophical issues I’ve been ranting about, you need to be aware that there are roughly two kinds of secularists, the Nietzscheans and the non-Nietzscheans. The Nietzscheans, including American horror author H. P. Lovecraft, British writer John Gray, and existentialist philosophers, warn that what Nietzsche called the death of God, which is to say the ascent of modern science and of secular powers, was a revolution that demands a reassessment of our values. Nietzscheans stress the illegitimacy of those traditions and institutions that presuppose theism. By Contrast, the non-Nietzscheans, including most New Atheists like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Jerry Coyne, believe that the rise of secularism doesn’t have such radical consequences. For example, these secularists often assume that the liberal value of a person’s sacredness is sustainable on an atheistic basis, even though that value derives from theistic myths. The non-Nietzschean secularist usually responds to the Nietzschean by saying that theists acquire their values in turn from the use of their own reason as they cherry-pick from scriptures, and from our prehistoric ancestors’ evolved social instinct.

Lovecraft's Cosmicism

Unlike the more optimistic secularists, Lovecraft worried about the philosophical implications of modern scientific findings. He dramatized his worries in weird short stories featuring super-powerful gods or aliens, whose motives are as unfathomable to us as are ours to ants. These extraterrestrials symbolized for Lovecraft the cosmic forces of nature which are just as alien to us, given that they’re not creations of a familiar, humane parent figure like God. The point is that modern science discovered not just the universe’s inhuman scope, but its impersonality and thus its inhumanity. Lovecraft used the existential abyss between his scientific characters and the inhuman universe to produce in his reader a sense of the truly strange. By “existential abyss” I mean our alienation from the rest of nature, given science’s disenchantment of it and our own need to enchant what we perceive by projecting anthropocentric categories wherever we go. Science is the eating of the apple and the source of our expulsion from Eden, and once we’re on the other side of the barrier, lost now in postmodern self-consciousness and skepticism, we’re no longer at home anywhere. To paraphrase what Milton says about Satan in Paradise Lost, hell travels always with us, since it’s a state of mind (see Book IV, line 20).

Lovecraft called his philosophical outlook “cosmicism,” using the inhuman aspects of the natural order to drive home the insignificance of our own ideals and pet projects. Our ambitions are pathetic vanities next to those of intelligent creatures who may well have prospered for billions of years and even now direct the course of galactic development. Even were there no such elder, squid-faced gods, the natural forces themselves have proved to be inhuman and thus alien to us, operating as they do on vast time scales, from subatomic particles to galaxies and perhaps even across multiple universes.

The upshot, for Lovecraft, is that the world discovered by modern scientists is awesome, above all, in its capacity to horrify us. We’re happiest when we delude ourselves that we’re at the center of a manageably-large universe and that underlying everything is a supreme person who not only comforts us but is actually related to us as our ultimate parent. The universe becomes a home for our extended family, and so ultimately we have nothing to fear. Nothing is strange in that universe, since God has sovereign control over everything--he knows even how many hairs there are on each of our heads--and we’re made to be similar to God. When we intellectually mature and can no longer view the universe with such innocence, everything becomes alien and strange, even ourselves as we learn of the effects of the now-impersonal natural forces on everything above and beneath the sun. We’re afraid of what’s different from ourselves, of the strange and the alien. We assumed that natural forces are controlled by people, because we control many processes in our little corner of the cosmos. But if people are just accidental byproducts rather than the architects of Creation, we’re adrift on a sea with no safe harbour.

Pragmatism as a Secular Whitewash

There are many consequences of this cosmicism, but one that should be more appreciated is that the New Atheist’s rosy secular outlook, according to which we should simply get on with our lives, creating our own meanings, following society’s laws, raising our families and working hard at our jobs, looks for all the world like a whitewash. Partly, this whitewash is due to the prevalence of scientists in the New Atheist movement, who don’t have much sympathy for philosophy, and partly it’s a tactic in the culture war against the religious fundamentalist in the US, for example, who accuses biologists of presupposing godlessness, to disastrous social effect. Instead of teaching merely the scientific facts of evolution, says the fundamentalist, biologists inevitably instill atheism in their students, since atheism follows from the rigorous use of reason at the expense of faith and atheism leads, in effect, to Lovecraft’s cosmicism or to Nietzsche’s revaluation of all values. In response, the New Atheist insists that neither the modern scientific worldview, nor philosophical naturalism, nor atheism has any such dire implication.

As the Atheist Bus message says in Britain and Canada, “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.” This pragmatic message is most telling. Just as Pascal says in his infamous Wager that even if you don’t yet believe there’s a god, you should go through the motions until you fall into the habit of being a religious person, so too the non-Nietzschean secularist says that even if you don’t see meaning or value in anything after God’s death at our hands, you should go through the motions until, no doubt, the secular myths from political, corporate, and Hollywood propaganda enthrall you. The hyper-rational secularist encourages the use of reason to wipe out theistic beliefs, but stops short of recommending skepticism about liberal secular values. No, that extended skepticism must be just postmodern gibberish. Best to trust the liberal technocrats, the cheerful scientists, and the shining images on the silver and little screens. After all, look at how rich and powerful those secularists are. No one could be so successful without possessing great wisdom, and so when they say that even though life is accidental in an immensely cold, grim, and impersonal universe, secularists should just get on with their lives, they might as well be selling coffee, nicotine, or some other capitalistic stimulant.

To be sure, non-Nietzschean secularists have their philosophical defenses of liberal values and of morality, democracy, and capitalism, that is, of the secular way of life. In fact, analytic philosophers, political scientists, and economists are for the most part devoted to producing just those defenses. And their arguments may be more or less compelling. But they fail to persuade the less intellectual person in the street who’s more liable to follow his or her feelings. So too must those pretty speeches and technical articles flying out the doors of secular institutions, of governments, colleges, and think tanks, fail to persuade the secular academics and professionals when now and again they don’t get their way and their animal instincts get the better of them. When their logic and science avail them not and they’re forced to go with their gut, they’ll tend to worry like the Nietzscheans. Unlike Pascal’s calculative wager, the point of cosmicism is that the secular worldview has an overall negative emotional impact. This worldview deflates our self-centered preconceptions, while the rigorous application of scientific objectivity trains us to be hyper-skeptical, to distrust all authority figures and traditions, and thus deprives us of any substitute myths. We have idols aplenty, but none of them is sustainable in the chaotic postmodern climate.

In other words, while the philosophical and soft scientific defenses of liberal secular values may be rationally compelling--and I’m conceding that for the moment only for the sake of argument--those defenses lack the power of Nietzschean cosmicism because the natural cosmos is above all a scary place. Richard Dawkins sometimes wishes that religious authorities didn't dictate the content of European art in previous centuries, since secular poets, for example, armed with scientific data, would have been inspired by nature’s grandeur to produce their own artworks of epic beauty. But this is naïve philistinism. Whatever beauty there is in nature is utterly tragic; in fact, the beauty dies with the inevitable demise of the beholder. Unless the secularist is a closet Platonist and thus a cryptotheist, the secularist should know that value judgments are subjective and that our talk of a flower’s beauty is a byproduct of our parochial mating ritual in which we size up a member of the other sex, searching for telltale signs of health, like facial symmetry and certain body proportions.

Fear, too, is an evolutionary mechanism, which causes us to fight or to flee when faced with an unknown. But at least there’s no misapplication when we fear the inhuman cosmos, as there is when we deem fractals and other natural forms beautiful. The Lovecraftian, existential emotion of angst is true to the revolutionary spirit of modern science, lacking the anthropocentrism of the cheap metaphor in which the harmony of cosmic processes--assuming there is such a thing--is compared to the harmony of the human form. The rosy secularist who calls nature "majestic" and "elegant" merely vents his or her prejudice when faced with what’s perfectly nonhuman. In this respect, modern secularism is neo-pagan, a high brow version of prehistoric animism, according to which nature is sacred because nature is flush with humanity or with spirits that are similar to ours, and humans are sacred because, well, we children are narcissistic. The angst-ridden secularist, however, grapples with the scientific lesson that anthropocentrism is childish folly and so--instead of cheerfully seeing our reflection in the cosmic pool--she resorts to the only suitable emotions she has left: fear, horror, awe, a recognition of the Other as such and thus of the limit of our standards and the necessary short-sightedness of our goals.  

Whatever intellectual merits pragmatic secular optimism may have--and again, I grant them here only for the sake of this particular rant--this optimism can’t compete with the fact that fear is the most suitable emotional response to nature. That was Lovecraft’s point, which is why his protagonists were mainly men of learning who are driven insane when they’re forced to feel the strangeness of a world without a humane God. For non-Nietzschean secularism to work, we’d need a means of neutering or short-circuiting our natural terror in response to our tragic existential situation (see Happiness). Perhaps this is the ultimate purpose of political and Hollywood fear-mongering, to distract us with fictional or propped-up monsters (communism, al Qaeda, middle eastern dictators), to avoid Western social collapse from the death of God.


  1. is something I've meant to get around to reading, though I would prefer to read Lovecraft's works in paper format.

    The regular application of 'rosy' to guys like Dawkins is now going to result in my envisioning their faces as blushing with optimism. I wonder now if I will forget this stereotype you've constructed in my mind.

    Some good observations here. Yet why is there this optimistic delight in the pragmatic Cosmicist view? Why does it feel brave and swollen with pride to embrace the truth that we're afraid of the unknown and questioning morals? Almost seems freeing to admit and pursue these doubts.

    1. Some good questions here. When it comes to the optimism of the "leaders" of the New Atheists, I fear the cause is that they've acquired a taste for power and like all demagogues, they manipulate their followers by appealing to their emotions. The fact is that New Atheism has become a social movement, which requires emotional bonds between its participants. These bonds in turn are shaped by primitive social dynamics. So, for example, pessimism doesn't sell well, which is why politicians don't like to tell people truths that shatter their naive self-image. As I say in this blog rant, theists attack atheism precisely for espousing a self-destructive worldview, and New Atheists keep their movement going with a whitewash, denying that secular humanism has dire implications.

      I agree with Nietzsche and with Joseph Campbell that secularists might be able to create an appealing postmodern myth that replaces the outworn theistic ones, in which case atheism needn't undermine society. Still, this would require honesty about the dangers of atheism and of the unleashing of reason.

  2. Replies
    1. Thanks very much, Evan. Do you know any Latin, by the way? I could use some help translating a few phrases from English to Latin, for my novel.

    2. Unfortunately no, but if they're simple sentences Google Translate might be of use (though I wouldn't trust it for anything beyond simple subject-verb-object sentences).

    3. I had some Latin in school so I could help you :-)

      As EvanT said, I wouldn't trust Google Translate too much...

    4. Thanks. Actually, I did use Google Translate and a couple of other online ones too, but I'd like human confirmation especially for the Latin. Is German your native language, Dietl? Because I have some German phrases too. Here are the Google translations that I'd like checked out. Any help would be much appreciated. (There's a French one too.)

      peregrinus vel monstrosus = alien or freakish
      infinitum abyssum = infinite abyss
      der meisten versteckte Ort = the most hidden place
      plurrimi altus deus = most high god
      Eine vorübergehende Narr? = A transient fool?
      ultimum translatione = ultimate translation
      Adieu, voler sur la sainte carcasse! = Farewell, fly on the holy carcass!

  3. peregrinus vel monstruosus (with the 'u')
    Instead of 'peregrinus' 'alienus' would also be fitting.

    abyssus infinitum (abyssum would be the accusative case; also I think it sounds a bit better if the noun goes first)

    'plurimi' in Latin and 'die meisten' in German aren't used to built the Superlativ. My suggestions:

    der am besten versteckte Ort (am besten = best [eng.])
    deus altissimus = the highest god

    Ein vorübergehender Narr? This is a fitting translation for transient fool but it sounds a bit unusual. You also have to consider who this is refering to. For a female it would be: 'Eine vorübergehende Närrin?'

    interpretatio ultimum

    All those translations depend a bit on the context so they might still need to be adjusted a bit.
    (Sorry, can't help you with French)

    1. Thanks very much. Are you sure there's another 'u' in "monstrosus"? Google Translate is saying no.

      I'm not sure "infinite abyss" is meant in an accusative case. Infinity isn't doing anything to the abyss, but is just one of the abyss's properties.

      "deus altissimus" is actually the translation I went with first, but then I thought the other one sounds cooler. I'll go back to "altissimus." And I'll go with your German for "hidden place" too.

      "Transient fool" sounds weird in English too. I'll have to think of something else here in the second draft. (I finished the first draft a couple of weeks ago.)

      I like your translation of "ultimate interpretation" better since "translatione" looks more like French or something.

      Thanks again, dietl.

  4. In my dictonary I only found it like that and I think I also read it somewhere in a text sometime ago.

    I meant 'accusative' in the grammatical sense. It's a bit difficult to explain because in English words have the same form in every case. In Latin every noun has 6 different forms (in German there are 4), depending if the noun is the subject of a sentence or an object. If it's an object there are also different possibilities.

    [For instance, the forms of 'agricola' = farmer:
    1. agricola = the farmer (Nominative Case)
    2. agricolae = of the farmer (Genetive Case)
    3. agricolae = to the farmer (Dative Case)
    4. agricolam = a farmer (Accusative Case)
    5. agricola = with a farmer(Ablative Case)
    6. agricola (Vocative Case is used in commands, exclamations ect.

    Then you have different forms for plural. There's several different types of word form depending on the word-endings. You see it's a bit complicated.]

    As for 'transient fool', I'm not sure what you mean with it. A person who is a fool only for a while? In German you would say 'Er war vorrübergehend ein Narr' meaning 'He was a fool transiently' which doesn't sound as weird.

    I only found 'translatione' in the Google translator and since 'translatio' is a verb in Latin that doesn't mean translation in the English sense I found 'interpretatio' to be better, because 'interpretor' (lat.)can also be a translator (eng.)

    1. Yes, I've known that Latin is super complicated ever since I saw a Monty Python line about it.

      "Infinite abyss" wouldn't be plural. I looked up "accusative case" on Wikipedia and it says it's a noun "used to mark the direct object of a transitive verb" or a noun "that is having something done to it." I think I might be going for the genetive case, since I want to speak of the infinity of the abyss.

      Google says "monstruosus" means "the monstrous" and "monstrosus" means "freakish." I don't want to say "the monstrous."

      As for the transient fool, no I was trying to say that someone is both transient, meaning short-lived, and also foolish for not recognizing his transience. But I agree this sounds odd, so I'm going to come up with something else here.

    2. infinite = infinitus
      Infinity = infinitas

      So it's 'infinitas [the infinity] abyssi [of the abyss]'.

      Google is wrong in this case ;-) 'monstruosus' is definitely not a noun. I guess when it doesn't recognize a word that has '-us' as an ending it automatically makes a noun. As for 'monstosus', wikipedia says 'monstuosus' is an alternate for it. I only found the latter in my dictionary but I guess both forms are possible so choose what you like better.

      'A short-lived fool in German is 'ein kurzlebiger Narr' and this doesn't sound like the 'kurzlebig' refers to 'Narr' so it would be what you mean I think.

    3. OK, so it's "abyssi infinitas" rather than "abyssum infinitus"?

      I'm not sure "monstrous" has to be a noun in "the monstrous." It could be an adjective, as in "The monstrous dragon." I guess I'll go for "monstrosus," then, because it's easier for the reader to get a sense of.

      I'll use that German for now. Oh, and it's a male, so would that be "Ein" or "Eine"? I think it's "Ein."

      Thanks again!

  5. Right,
    in 'abyssi infinitas' infinity is the noun and in 'abyssus infinitus' the abyss is.

    'Eine' is female and 'Ein' is male.

    You're welcome!

    1. Sorry for all these questions, but I'm a little confused about the infinite abyss. Do you mean the difference is between "infinity of the abyss" and "abyss of the infinity"? In that case, I'd want to say the former, but I'd have thought "abyss" would be the noun.

  6. It's okay, may have put it in a confusing way.
    'abyssi infinitas' = the infinity of the abyss (both nouns, infinitus = nominative, abyssi = genetive)
    'abyssus infinitus' = infinite abyss (adjective + noun, both nominative)

    It's a bit confusing if you're not use to it. Latin grammar is an abyss on its own, luckily it's non-infinite ;-)