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The Cosmic Horror of HP Lovecraft and Sgr A*

telescopic image of black hole

Astronomers at the Event Horizon Telescope collaboration recently released the first picture of Sagittarius A*, the monstrous black hole residing at our galaxy’s core. Given that the distance between the Earth and this cosmological object is roughly 26,000 light-years (or 152,844,259,702,773,792 miles), the image’s production is a remarkable scientific and technological achievement. While Sgr A*, as it is affectionately known, weighs 4 million times the mass of our sun, it is only 17 times its size. This combination of mass and size results in gravitational forces strong enough to shape the entire Milky Way galaxy and warp existence itself – bending space, altering the flow of time, and preventing even light from escaping.

This isn’t the first time the Event Horizon Telescope collaboration has produced such an awesome image.

In 2019, the array captured the very first image of a black hole. This one, named M87*, resides in the center of another galaxy roughly 500 million light-years away (or 2,939,312,686,591,800,000,000 miles). With a mass 6.5 billion times that of our sun and measuring over 23 billion miles across, M87* dwarfs Sgr A*. For a sense of scale, the distance from the Sun to Neptune, the most distant planet in our solar system, is 3 billion miles. Indeed, this M87* is thought to be one of the largest black holes in existence.

These objects’ sheer scale and weight, alongside their distance from us, defy comprehension. And while black holes are undoubtedly unique celestial objects, much of the universe plays out on an equally impressive scale. Planets, galaxies, stars, and quasars, amongst numerous other cosmological objects, exist on geographical and temporal scales far beyond anything on Earth. Asking someone to comprehend a single object vastly larger than our entire solar system is to ask them to conceive of the inconceivable.

We’re just not evolved to think about reality in such grand terms. As corporeal beings, limited to a single planet and a single lifetime, we think in human terms; we’re geared to understand the universe on our scale.

But regardless of this predisposition, the universe is beyond vast. The cosmic scale on which existence plays out makes everything that’s occurred here on Earth, from the first hints of life to you reading this sentence, seem infinitesimally small in comparison. Existence’s sheer unassailability can fill the heart with dread as it means that the universe is, by its nature, incomprehensible. That is, as limited, mortal beings, the overwhelming majority of existence will forever be home to the unknowable and the unknown, and nothing stokes fear like the unknown.

This fear, and specifically its emergence from the universe’s vast and uncaring nature, was a central theme in the fiction of Howard Phillips Lovecraft, AKA HP Lovecraft. Indeed, many of his most famous stories – The Shadow over Innsmouth, At the Mountains of Madness, and Colour out of Space – concern a small group of persons wrestling with their insignificance in the face of a vastly uncaring universe. While his fiction features creatures literally beyond comprehension (just seeing some of them drives characters into insanity), these beings always function as embodiments of the irrefutable fact that our fleeting lives mean less than nothing in the grand terms of space and time.

As Lovecraft writes in the opening to arguably his most famous work, The Call of Cthulhu:

The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.

Many philosophies and religions focus on humanity. They ascribe to us some vital place in God’s design, use rationality to construct a coherent worldview, or provide frameworks according to which we can understand right and wrong. But Lovecraft sought to set the scope of his philosophy, known as Cosmicism, beyond our limited mortal perspective. For him, there is simply so much out there in the universe that has nothing to do with us. For humanity to try and come to grips with reality in its entirety is to attempt an impossible task, one that would shatter our minds if even partially achieved. Cosmicism highlights that while things may matter to us on a human scale, this scale is meaningless compared to reality’s vastness. In other words, while things matter to us, ultimately, we don’t matter.

This realization may strike readers, even atheistic ones, as inherently bleak.

While one can grapple with the idea that existence is godless and that meaning is self-created, that is a very different thing from saying the universe, by its very constitution, is geared against our continued existence due to its utter indifference; much like how a boot is geared against the existence of an ant.

But such an upsetting outcome need not be the only takeaway from Cosmicism. One can read Lovecraft’s works, contemplate existence’s vast and uncaring nature, and be even more thankful for the beauty in our lives. If contradictions and comparisons enhance qualities and characteristics – if good is only good when compared to bad, if hot is only hot when compared to cold – then the earthly things that bring meaning to people’s lives might be even more meaningful when we acknowledge how much of a miracle it is that they exist in the first place. When objects exist, like black holes, that could tear apart the planet in less than a moment, the fact that our meager mortal lives occur as they do seems even more miraculous.

The fact that there is a single, small, blue ball floating in the blackness of space and time, where beauty and meaning (even if that is only according to human standards) can be found amongst existence’s indifferent gaze, should temper our fear of the endless well of the universe… if only a little.

Aging and Blaming in the Criminal Justice System

Photograph of a long hall of cells with light and a dome at the end

A recent study in the medical journal The Lancet suggests that, if trends hold, 50% of babies born today will live to be over 100 years old.  Though long life is typically thought of as a good thing, some of our ordinary practices may need to change to track philosophical and practical challenges posed by longer life spans.  In particular, we need to reflect on whether our attitudes about blame and punishment need to be adjusted. For example, last year, John “Sonny” Franzese was released from an American prison at the age of 100.  Franzese was sentenced to fifty years for a bank robbery. The unique challenges and philosophical questions posed by extreme old age cast the moral permissibility of incarcerating the elderly into question.

Arguably, we need to think critically about duration of punishment. The criminal justice system in The United States relies heavily on retributivism as a justification for sentencing.  The concept of blame is central to a philosophy of retributivist justice. As an act of retribution, criminals are often given multiple life sentences or are sentenced to a number of years in prison that far exceeds the amount of time that criminal could reasonably expect to be alive. There is room for debate concerning the usefulness of blame as a moral concept.  Supposing, however, that blame is an important evaluative attitude in our moral lives, there is good reason for reflection on whether and under what conditions other moral considerations are more important than whether an agent is morally blameworthy. As lifespans increase, a life sentence becomes a still more serious proposition. At what point, if any, does respect for human dignity outweigh our retributivist concerns to ensure that a blameworthy agent is held responsible for their actions?

Intuitively, regardless of the nature of the crime, there are some upper limits to how long it is appropriate to punish someone.  For example, in his paper Divine Evil, David Lewis points out that it could never be just to punish a person infinitely for a finite crime.  Of course, in the context of the paper, Lewis is arguing that an omnibenevolent God couldn’t sentence a person to an eternity of torment in hell for a finite sin, but the main point here holds.  If human beings were immortal, it would be unjust to hold them in prison forever with no chance of release as punishment for a single crime or series of crimes.  That suggests that there is a time at which continuing to punish a blameworthy person is no longer morally justified. Some countries, like Portugal, Norway, and Spain, don’t sentence convicted criminals to life in prison at all.  In many other European nations, a life sentence always includes the possibility of parole. The understanding seems to be that a life sentence without the possibility of parole is a human rights violation. Even if the United States does not come around to thinking about the issue in this way, as human lifespans continue to get longer, it’s important to identify the point at which punishment is no longer morally permissible.

For retributivism to be justified, our assessments of blame must be apt.  For our judgments of blameworthiness to be apt, it must be the case that we are blaming one and the same person who engaged in the wrongdoing for which they are being blamed.  Increased lifespans muddy the waters of identity judgment. An extremely elderly person may have little to no psychological continuity with the being they were when they engaged in wrongdoing.  In his paper The Makropulos Case: Reflections on the Tedium of Immortality, Bernard Williams argues that if a being were immortal, or even if that being were to live an exceptionally long life, that being would either become extremely bored or would change so much that they would no longer be justified in judging future experiences as their own experiences.  Living a flourishing human life is a matter of setting goals and completing projects.  The kinds of goals we set goes a long way to establishing who we are as people. If we continue to set goals of the same type, Williams argues, we will inevitably get bored.  If we set different goals, we will eventually become totally different people, unrecognizable to our former selves.

Aging criminals aren’t immortal, but as human lifespans continue to increase, it may well be the case that they resemble their former selves in very few respects.  If this is the case, it is far from clear that our identity judgments are justified or that our assessments of blameworthiness are apt. This recognition should also cause us to reevaluate our goals when it comes to punishment.  As prisoners age, should our philosophy of punishment still be retributivism?

If blame is a useful moral concept, it is, at least in part, because a moral community that makes use of blame has a mechanism for encouraging bad actors to change their behavior in the future.  To successfully bring about this change in behavior, it is important that the behavior in question is a salient thread in the life narrative of the wrongdoer. Once enough time has past such that this is no longer true, it’s possible that continuing to blame a wrongdoer no longer serves this important social function in our moral community.

This article has a set of discussion questions tailored for classroom use. Click here to download them. To see a full list of our discussion questions, check out the Educational Resources page.

Dissecting the Deathstagram

For many, the feeling of morbid curiosity is a common yet unsettling one. It is difficult to be sure where this feeling comes from, but its presence when viewing death is strangely magnetic. It would be easy to feel that this morbid curiosity is immoral, some sort of perverse feeling not shared by the rest of the population. According to The Atlantic’s Leah Sottile, however, perhaps it is more common than expected. In documenting celebrity death sites like, Sottile’s piece makes clear that this curiosity is not only widespread, but also potent enough to form entire communities where morbid curiosity is at center stage. When observing how it manifests regarding these celebrities, it is clear that such morbid curiosity is hardly uncommon.

Continue reading “Dissecting the Deathstagram”