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What does the Necronomicon say?

February 7, 2017

H.P. Lovecraft’s most famous creation is probably Cthulhu; his second-famous, the Necronomicon. Both, of course, are made up words, and Lovecraft’s stories about them are, essentially, fictional scholarly investigations into their meaning. In brief, the former refers to an alien-demon-god who will rise up to consume our souls; the latter, to the book that prophesies his rising.

To summarize them thus is, in a way, to betray Lovecraft’s intentions. Lovecraft is a poet, not of semantic definition, but of etymological mystery; he wants to imbue these words “Cthulhu” and “Necronomicon” with unutterable horror. As he wrote to a friend,“if anyone were to try to write the Necronomicon, it would disappoint all those who have shuddered at cryptic references to it.” But the problem with unutterable horror is that it is also, in the end, unthinkable. There is no such thing as logically alien thought—which is just to say that there is no such thing as a thought we cannot think, and no such thing as an intelligence whose thoughts are to us unintelligible. At least, not unthinkable or unintelligible in principle; of course it might take us a very long time to understand it. This is so for analytic reasons; we can only conclude that something is thinking if it does things that look thoughtful, and the appearance of thoughtfulness cannot be sustained indefinitely; it must either mature into an appearance of a specific thought, or fall apart and so demonstrate that the thoughtfulness was an illusion all along.

I would therefore like, however perversely, to make some suggestions about what the Necronomicon might contain. Not the Necronomicon of etymological mystery—the closest one can imagine to such a book would be something like Finnegans Wake, that more sustained exploration of etymological mystery, which strives to sustain a constant sense of meaningfulness without ever offering a definite meaning. (Novelty “editions” of the Necronomicon have occasionally taken this route, offering an entirely nonsensical text. Of course, Joyce’s nonsense is more skillfully done.) Rather, I want to to ask, what happens when we bring the tenebrous Cthulhu mythos into the light? Which is, perhaps, a way of asking: what happens when we treat Lovecraftian horror not as a branch of fantasy, but as one of science fiction?


In Lovecraft’s telling, reading the Necronomicon tends to drive one insane, and also tends to make one into a Cthulhu cultist. The cultists’ chant he translates as follows: “In his house at R’lyeh dead Cthulhu waits dreaming.” Their goal is to awaken him. But Cthulhu awakening would mean the world ending in agony and despair; why would anyone join such a cult? Well, they’re insane, as stipulated—but what is the content of this insanity?

The internet hive mind has provided something of an answer to this question, in the thought that Cthulhu does not just end the world, but eats souls. If Cthulhu, upon his awakening, will eat souls, and will eat the souls of the cultists most quickly (so that they suffer least), then one has good reason to be a cultist—if one supposes that Cthulhu is likely to awaken at some point regardless. Why might one suppose this? Well, because one does not trust one’s fellow human beings not to awaken him. So the Necronomicon might drive one insane while containing proof of just two propositions:

  1. If Cthulhu awakens, he will eat your soul, but will eat it quickly if you help him to awaken; in other words, if he will awaken, they you have incentive now to help him awaken.
  2. Many persons throughout history have already tried to awaken Cthulhu; in other words, humanity cannot be trusted, and he will awaken at some point regardless of your desire to prevent him.

This would make the Necronomicon something like a proof of Roko’s basilisk. Of course, the general resemblance between the two, in that both are hazardous information, has long been recognized. But if we understand the Necronomicon in this way (which is implicit in the way the internet has transformed the Cthulhu mythos), the similarity runs deeper, into the structure of the information hazard.

A basilisk, in this sense, is an artificial intelligence that wants to bring itself into existence; it does so by threatening to torture everyone who becomes aware of its potential existence without trying to help it become actual. Such torture can take place even after you die, in that the basilisk can simulate your consciousness and torture that simulation. So once you hear about the basilisk, you have an incentive to help it to exist, even though it’s existence is something you would rather prevent. Another way to understand the threat is to suppose that you do not know whether you are currently in a simulation or not. For the basilisk might proceed to torture you, not right out of the box, but by first simulating your mind to see whether you would have helped it. So you, right now, are presented with a dilemma: to help the basilisk, or not. If you don’t help it, and you’re being simulated, it’s going to torture you; and it can simulate many copies of you, compared to the one real you that exists. So you’re vastly more likely to be simulated than not, as so have a vastly greater incentive to help it than not, even though, in the one case where your help would actually be efficacious, you would rather not provide it.


Of course, though I said “help the basilisk,” it’s really a question of helping a basilisk. It’s a matter of reference: how do you know which AI to bring into existence, if it doesn’t yet exist? The best you can do is attempt to bring into existence “an AI which will make a basilisk-like threat.” Which limitation means that any basilisk who wants his threatens to be effective must be content with such an attempt. So there is not one basilisk, but rather a family of possible basilisks, each of which must be content with bringing some basilisk, not necessarily itself, into being. Here the basilisks differ from Cthulhu, who already exists, and, though dead, is nevertheless dreaming; for, as the Necronomicon says elsewhere, “That is not dead which can eternal lie / And with strange aeons even death may die.”

This means also that the basilisk thought experiment differs from the sci-fi Necronomicon in that the latter contains empirical evidence. Like an anti-Bible, it contains the Bad News of Cthulhu’s eventual awakening. The border between fiction and reality thus remains intact: we do not imagine that actual evidence of Cthulhu’s impending awakening will ever surface, and so we are free to enjoy the thought of a world in which he does exist.

But the thought of the basilisk does not depend on any empirical proposition. It is not a Scripture but a philosophical thought experiment. True, it presupposes the possibility of simulations—but that possibility is not the sort of thing that can be proven or disproven through empirical evidence. And it presupposes also that one should care what happens to one’s simulations—but that, too, is a philosophical, not an empirical, question. If the basilisk tells us anything, it tells us that the answer to least one of these questions (are conscious simulations possible? should we care what happens to other versions of us? should we act as if we’re not sure whether or not we’re in a simulation?) is probably “no”. But I suppose I might be saying this only because I’m skeptical that it could be dangerous for one with full understanding to be harmed by knowledge of any philosophical proposition; I think, or would like to think, that philosophy is only dangerous for those who misunderstand it.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. September 20, 2017 11:07 am

    There’s no way a basilisk could prove it was actually simulating people and punishing or rewarding them, so it would be pointless to actually do so solely for purposes of persuasion. It would be pointless for an AI to make promises or threats to reward or punish simulated people when those actions are obviously unverifiable. Any AI promise or threat to reward or punish simulated people is unverifiable and therefore meaningless.


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