Cthulhu is an invention of the early
twentieth century horror writer H.P. Lovecraft – an indescribably grotesque and
gigantic cosmic horror, that caricatures a human, an octopus and a dragon, and
that moves as if it were a mountain stumbling forward. To gaze upon it is to
bathe in madness, and to encounter it is to meet death at the casual hands of
something so immense and terrible that you are nothing to it but an insigificant speck beneath its tentacles. It symbolises a stark and meaningless universe,
where nothing but death or madness await us all. Surely no-one believes in
Cthulhu, except perhaps for their own amusement? So why bother to ask that we
not believe in it at all?
To get to the bottom of this cryptic nonsense, let us cast our minds back in time a few hundred years to the cultural circumstances that existed at what has been dubbed the dawn of the Age of Enlightenment…
The triumph of the Enlightenment was the assertion of reason as a superior tool to tradition, and from the 18th century onwards we consequently saw the rise of philosophical debate and scientific exploration as a new way of coming to grips with the world. The Enlightenment pushed against established ways of thinking, and in particular resisted the authority of religious traditions. The work of the Enlightenment in shifting our focus is long since concluded, but unfortunately the momentum is still pushing in this direction – and arguably no longer to our general benefit.
If the Enlightenment managed to put pay to many religious superstitions, it could not have anticipated that it would lead to the establishment of so many scientific superstitions, such as presumptive teleology, the multiverse of quantum timelines and the mythology of progress as a sustainable ideal. Like Orwell’s Animal Farm, what began as a noble overthrowing of institutions that exceeded their domain now seems turning full circle: now the revolutionary threatens to become the oppressor.
Whereas before religious authorities
provided canonical opinions for the masses, now scientific authorities
provide their canonical interpretations. Indeed, many people now look to scientists in much the same way they used to look at priests – as a source of
authoritative interpretation. The underlying assumption seems to be that “the
scientists know what’s really going on…” One only has to look at the way
newspapers turn to scientists to provide justifications or explanations as an example. The problem with this is that the domain of science is the empirical,
but the domain of life and experience extends far beyond what may be tested. I trust scientists to conduct experiments or develop engineering solutions to problems, but there the implicit expertise ends.
Culture, art, narrative, ethics and imagination all become stunted if one attempts to bound them at the edge of the
testable, or indeed in any way other than the ways we individually chose. If humanity did not accept the attempts of tyrannical authority figures to place limits on what was allowable thought under religious guises, I am hopeful it can resist any attempt by tyrannical authority figures to achieve the same end under scientific guises.
The influential Enlightenment philosopher David Hume looked deeply into the world through an empirical lens. He dismissed religious superstitions as unfounded, but drew a line at God saying the problem is man’s tendency to presume qualities of God, who was essentially unknowable. He dismissed tradition as an inferior means of understanding the world to reason, but observed that reason itself was severely limited as a tool, requiring a leap of faith before it could be successfully employed. He dismissed conventional ethics as inferior to a morality based upon utility and agreeableness, but observed that our notions of self were illusory.
There seems to be a widely distributed secular worldview that renders life both bleak and pointless, and perhaps this viewpoint counts Hume as part of its causes – but if so, it has taken all of his initial
observations, and ignored all his caveats. It is a sickness of the modern world
that the legacy of the Enlightenment has been the elevation of science to some
strange doctrine of inflexible Truth (and not of exploration), and that the philosophical
questioning which drove the Enlightenment seems almost to have passed, leaving
in its wake a widespread belief in a hollow and valueless reality of
Here is a brief sample of some common tenets of this peculiar belief system:
Nothing exists that cannot be tested. Everything has come about through pure chance. Humanity, and all life on Earth, appeared through a series of random processes, which gradually refined life as we know it. Life is selfish. It preys on other life. Our ultimate fate is to die. If the universe could be personified as a god it would be Great Cthulhu – a lurking madness that if it happens to notice us at all, it is as food to devour, but mostly we are utterly insignificant to this blind and ultimately destructive force.
This will doubtless seem like an overstatement, and the evocation of Cthulhu as unnecessary. However, it does sometimes seem to me that there are at least a few people who believe something akin to the proposition: if there is a god, it is Cthulhu, and I refuse to worship Cthulhu, especially since it does not exist. I doubt this is a fair caricature of the motivation behind anti-theist sentiments which seek to “bring down” religion, but it is at least, I hope, an amusing perspective on the issue.
The problem which gives rise to this
philosophy of Cthulhu realism, if you will permit me some license, is
the belief that the tenets of the secular worldview described above are the
only ones logical, reasonable or possible.
But is it really reasonable to believe that nothing exists that cannot be tested? This is to presume that the universe consists only of those elements which we happen to have senses and tools to detect. It is like seeing the universe as a Lego construction, and the only real entities as those constructed out of Lego. Is it not more likely that there are other elements to the universe that lie beyond our ability to test? Or at the very least, that we will find new tools for observation in the future that will take us further than the short distance we see now?
Not to mention our sense of self, our love of
others, our societies and nations and so forth; these are not empirical
constructs at all, but part of our personal reality – a reality which is both private, and untestable.
Is it really reasonable to believe that everything has come about by chance? Even accepting the evolutionary process, it was still necessary for us to live in a universe where the laws and circumstances made such a process possible. We can imagine an infinite number of possible worlds, with every possible variation of physics, chemistry and biology – yet the one we live in happens to have atoms that form certain chemicals that self-replicate, which can form complex and fascinating life forms. It need not be so.
The anthropic principle declares that given that we exist as observers, we must be in a universe that
allows such a state – it is not entirely clear how this idea substantially
differs from belief in a pantheistic God, other than its choice of words.
Either way, it seems to be an error to believe that chance is the only
factor in our existence.
Is it really reasonable to characterise life as being selfish, existing solely to prey on other life for its own self-perpetuation? Every multi-cellular organism is a testament to the power of symbiosis to overcome competition. We are each a walking metropolis of bacteria who have somehow managed to work together so closely than we routinely mistake it for a single entity! Nature is rife with examples of co-operation, symbiosis and mutual aid – and it is a purely metaphysical pursuit to determine which had the greater influence on our evolutionary history, competition or co-operation, since we can neither see the past in full nor make any judgement that requires omniscience for its arbitration.
Is it really reasonable to consider death our
only fate? Certainly death is an experience we will all share, but the
meaning of our life is what happens between birth and death, not merely how we
meet our end.
And if we believe that the essence of what we are is our consciousness, and our consciousness is a particular state of mind with no necessary connection to our earlier selves than the strictly historical (as Hume shrewdly observes, albeit nervously), then if a future human happens to share our state of consciousness but not our memories, is that human not a phenomenological analogue to ourselves? If we have amnesia, we still believe we are ourselves, and this being so, can we not imagine a kind of amnesiac rebirth to be at work in the universe (even if only for a moment)?
Are you so certain that what makes you
yourself could not exist again? And if so, is it solely because you conflate
yourself with the metropolis of bacteria you are currently living in?
I raise these questions not to convince anyone of any specific alternative view, but simply to demonstrate that Cthulhu realism is not the only reasonable view of life, the universe and everything. We have a choice in how we approach these issues, and that choice is perhaps the most vital decision any of us will make. Do we want to work towards a better world, or would we rather just wallow in despair?
The acclaimed writer Michael Moorcock
chastises HP Lovecraft’s writing for its bleakness (as well as its misogyny,
awful prose and so forth), and comments that Lovecraft appeals to us only when
we are feeling depressed and dejected. Who but the most pathological Goth could
sustain such an attitude into adulthood, and still hope to glean some enjoyment
Cthulhu realism is a valid belief system, but it is one of many we can choose between. I suggest we take our instinct to disbelieve in Cthulhu and take it further, to the point whereby the reality that metaphor entails vanishes entirely. If your reality fills you with despair, change it. That is the power of free will and freedom of belief – and it is yours to do with as you will.