The Lovecraft Theodicy: Cthulhu has No Problem of Evil

August 13, 2015

This past summer, I listened at the CFI conference to our colleague Stephen Law’s interesting take on an ancient philosophical problem for theists: the problem of evil. The crux of the problem is that, if there is a god, and it is all-powerful and all good, why does it allow evil to exist? I’ve written a bit about it in a tribute to my late mentor Peter Hare’s work on the subject in the Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society. In my article, I describe how Hare and his collaborator Edward Madden categorize three basic responses, what are called “theodicies,” that attempt to explain away the problem and argue for the simultaneous existence of evil and such a god. Law has another interesting approach to challenging the various theodicies which he calls the evil-god challenge.

            The various theodicies attempt to explain how or why a god of the sort presumed to exist by most monotheistic religions could create a universe and creatures in it capable of evil. One familiar argument is that from “free will” (embraced in modern times by Alvin Plantinga, among others) which argues that the all-powerful god gave us free will, and that in order for it to be meaningful, there must be a choice of evil, and the choice rests with humans, not god.  Numerous other approaches exist, and I will conduct a course on theodicies in September as part of CFI’s online course offerings. Here I want to talk about H.P. Lovecraft, because his approach is I think another viable option.

            Lovecraft was an author of horror stories, and never really achieved great success in his lifetime, but his work has heavily influenced modern science fiction and horror. His writing style is often turgid, his prose repetitive (count the number of time the word “blasphemous” appears through his work), and he is often sexist and racist. Regardless, he is now legendary. His influence on the culture comes, some have argued, from his standing uneasily between modernity and something quite pre-modern, almost ancient. Despite his penchant for horror, one could argue that there is very little “supernatural” about his works. The monsters that inhabit his universe are nearly all conceived of as being part of nature


Cthulhu campaign poster, 1992

Once we become accustomed to the notion of an utterly natural, unimaginably enormous universe of an age we can scarcely fathom (I’m starting to sound like Lovecraft here), then the monsters that can be thought to inhabit it become nearly infinite. Lovecraft’s monsters are gods. The “great old ones” or “elders” that comprise his pantheon are physical creatures, very ancient, lost evolutionary dead-ends, extinct races and creatures that may or may not have come from other planets, but which humans worshiped as gods. The most well known of this mythos is Cthulhu, who is imagined as an enormous (hundreds of meters tall) creature with tentacles where a mouth should be, wings, flippers, claws, etc. He sleeps now under the ocean awaiting for his chance to return to the surface of the earth. The modern sci-fi equivalent might be something like the kaiju mythos underlying the Godzilla movies.

            Infrequent in Lovecraft is some reference to modern Christianity. Unlike the standard horror fare where proper attention to Christian faith can protect us from devils, the Lovecraftian gods are utterly indifferent to humanity, except maybe as a sometimes accidental food source. While humans worship the great old ones, it isn’t clear that the Lovecraftian gods care whether they are worshipped or not, only that they are fed. In some way, the Lovecraft oeuvre is existential. The universe is too big, too impersonal, and utterly indifferent to our puny, human existences. Cthulhu and the old ones, the elders and all the monsters of the universe are only evil by our interpretation, just as ants (if they could) might consider us evil in our daily genocides of their kind as we walk so carelessly down the street.

            The universe itself is a harsh place. Stars explode, asteroids impact, species come and go, and its indifference is embodied by Cthulhu. To us, this is horrible, this is evil. Perhaps it is just a matter of perspective, and we label too readily with terms delineating values things that occur without regard for intention. While humans can create such perspective, and choose to harm or not our fellow humans (and perhaps other sentient creatures) our perception of sentience itself might be limited. Cthulhu and the other Lovecraftian gods seem at times to barely even perceive us, going about their “lives” with little more regard for us than we have for flies, or rocks. This is the Lovecraftian theodicy. The great big horrific universe has no regard at all for us, our sentience, our pain, or our short lives. Cthulhu has absolutely no problem with evil. That’s only something we should care about, the gods clearly do not.


#1 Naterade on Friday August 14, 2015 at 5:44am

I’m not sure this theodicy provides a viable alternative to the problem of evil (POE). This theodicy evades the POE by changing the god about whom the problem is formulated. It’s like I’m being charged for a crime and my retort is “maybe I did, but he didn’t, therefore there is no problem.” The POE has a specific referent, a specifically culpable god. Changing the god leaves the originally-referred-to god on the POE hook for evils (moral and natural).

#2 David (Guest) on Friday August 14, 2015 at 6:32am

Well, if any god is like the Lovecraftian gods, then evil isn’t even on their radar. It’s meaningless to them. And the same holds true for a nearly infinite,  natural universe.

#3 Randy on Friday August 14, 2015 at 5:50pm

Regarding free will: If a god created beings physically capable of evil, and then imbued them with free will to make them able to choose to do evil, then such god would have known that at least some evil would result from that.

Of course, we know that at least the Judeo-Christian god admitted to being the cause of evil, in Isaiah 45:7.  Therefore, the Judeo-Christian god is not all good, by his own admission.  Or he’s a liar.  Which is probably also evil.

#4 Philip Rand (Guest) on Sunday August 16, 2015 at 1:06am

I find the problem of evil thingy an interesting research topic…

I found this comment of yours Dr Koepsell interesting:

“The universe itself is a harsh place. Stars explode, asteroids impact, species come and go, and its indifference is embodied by Cthulhu. To us, this is horrible, this is evil.”

I was especially interested in the asteroid impact reference.

It would appear that around 65 million years ago just before the Chicxulub asteroid strike the dinosaurs were all ready slowly becoming extinct due to the increase of acidity in the earth’s atmosphere causing there egg shell becoming extremely thin and easily broken (on account of a great increase in volcanic activity)...

Now, this poses an interesting question…

Was the asteroid impact that wiped out the dinosaurs quickly a good or bad thing?

I mean, it did ensure that the dinosaurs demise was quick rather than prolonged, i.e. it reduced suffering… a bit like how we euthanize our pets.

#5 david koepsell (Guest) on Sunday August 16, 2015 at 4:55am

Philip, from the dinosaurs’ perspective, it was terrible. From ours in retrospect, necessary. We wouldn’t want another any time soon. But in any case, it wasn’t “evil” . That’s just a risk of being so tiny in such a vast universe. Nature is amoral, like Chtulhu.

#6 Philip Rand (Guest) on Monday August 17, 2015 at 9:42am

Dr Koepsell

As I wrote I have on and off studied this “evil God and/or amount of suffering” concept in quite detail.

I can only comment on what you have written but from what you have written I can see the trajectory of how your analysis will develop. 

First off, I would say, forget analysing/criticising other theodicies and instead concentrate and develop your Chtulhu model.

It would appear that the two primitive concepts in the Chtulhu model are:

1/ Nature is amoral.

2/ Chtulhu is amoral.

Concept 1/ as you have written is in danger of committing a Naturalisitc Fallacy.

Therefore, I would alter concept 1/ to read:

1/ Nature hides.

I choose the concept “hides” because you wish to use the concept of “suffering” as an empirical, i.e. testable quantity and as my dinosaur example demonstrated the main problem with using a concept such as “suffering” is that it is not delimited.

So, to get around this problem one generalises how Nature interacts with human requests for knowledge, i.e. measurements of suffering, data in other words.

By doing this concept 2/ can then be linked to concept 1/ highlighting the intention/will of Chtulhu with this alteration:

2/ Chtulhu likes to hide.

Then a further alteration to concept 2/ gets you your main thrust:

2/ Chtulhu is indifferent.

This means, we have separated the empirical (as exemplified by concept 1) with the intentional (as exemplified by concept 2).

This would allow you to first concentrate on concept 2 using the Principle of Indifference and thence linking concept 1 using the Principle of Maximum Entropy.

However, I doubt your approach will get you what you want.

I have studied Dr Law’s evil god model in quite amount of detail, it is a very good model, the analysis of which revealed many interesting insights…the main one being that whether one considers the universe to be created by an Evil God or a Good God we still end up with the same world.  I have found that an Indifferent God gives the same result.

But good luck in your analysis, I would be interested in your result.

#7 david (Guest) on Monday August 17, 2015 at 2:02pm

Thank you, Philip, that’s very helpful. I’ll be mulling this over.

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