The rise of nihilism in contemporary society has been largely underestimated in virtue of a curious psychological blindness that seems to afflict modern man regarding his view of large part of the aspects of cultural, social and political life of his world. Kierkegaard or Nietzsche already pointed out this “stale” in the soul of modern man followed by eminent scholars such as Freud and Albert Schweitzer, Adorno, Marcuse, Horkheimer, Huxley or Fromm, just to mention few of the more relevant thinkers that warned us about this grim state of affairs. In the twenty-first century any discussion on this stale and numbness of contemporary spirit, seems to have been banned from the public view/discussion and, through subtle and deceitful means of schooling and ideological propaganda, it has been institutionalized and imposed on the globalized society as one of the ways of the desirable behavior for our time. As Aldous Huxley skillfully pointed out in his parody of our world, “Being dull is an absolute necessity; it vastly increases the ability to think rigidly and inflexibly”. The same Huxley, in a time when Nazi-fascism was on the rise, published Ends and means (Chatto & Windus, London 1937 – on his sixth impression in August 1941!) a lucid book that, if properly read and understood, could have made – with few other books – a huge difference in the events of the twenty-first century. But sadly, books and ideas take very little part in the public events of our time.
In the frame of the modern world, science moved, slowly, from naturalism into nihilism and the scientism proudly declared by many “scientists” is just one of the many forms of contemporary nihilism. Almost paradoxically it’s the Judeo-Christian layout in which science is rooted to bestow the intrinsic nihilism of which it is soaked in. Having erased any theological explanation from his world view, but being at the same time teleological oriented toward an end/purpose (τέλος), some modern scientists felt they just had to exchange the “divine” with “nothingness”, and substitute the spiritual cause of their predecessor with a material cause. For contemporary science, the choice has become then draconian and dualistic: if there is no deity then there is nothing, aut aut (it is not coincidental that dualism is another religious form of thinking). It was Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi, in 1799, writing a letter to Fichte, to accuse him of nihilism and defining it as an “Absolutization of negation (Verabsolutierung der Negation)”. Since then, nihilism assumed so many different faces and dissolved in the main opinions of modernity: there is nihilism in the Enlightenment to which the nineteenth-century opposes Romanticism, but there is also nihilism in the contemporary capitalistic ideology that has turned the human being into a mere “carrier of interests” (from here derives the anti-ethical mantra of contemporary man: “what’s in it for me?”). This mainstream ideology transforms man itself into a means to an end – while every man is an end in itself. How easy is, in our society, to hear the statement: “For me, going to college is just a means to an end, a way to get a better job”, showing that even knowledge, another “end in itself”, has so easily been turned into a means to an end (there are many ways to argue that this is the greatest and unperceived catastrophe of our time).
Every division is also a conceptual distinction and that indicates how science has also roots in theology, starting from the Mazdean way of thinking in dualistic terms. It is with Aristotle, the great dualist, that the Pythagorean tendency to divide between substance, quantity, quality, here and there, up and down, said or non-said, become the habit and the norm for Western thinking: if it’s “a” cannot be “non-a” (although this formulation is a late one). The entire world becomes then matter of pre-predicamenta, predicament, and post-predicamenta. Before Aristotle conceptual boundaries were not so clear cut: Heraclitus made opposition and contradiction the core of reality, Parmenides admitted only an unmovable core of reality and the impossibility of nothingness, while Plato skillfully mediates between his predecessors. Aristotle indicates instead only the way of his categories and divisions: everything must be forced into some sort of classification, even the root of roots, The unmoved mover (πρῶτον κινοῦν ἀκίνητον, Metaphysics, Book 12 or Λ), basically crashing metaphysics into mechanicism. From there is all the way down to a lot of other cosmological principles even culminating in the contemporary theory of the Big Bang. It’s extraordinary to notice how ideas that appear to be so contemporary can have, instead, their conceptual roots in the cultural dawn of mankind.
In time, the divisions that science identifies have become more complex and sophisticated, but the basic method of science is still in the Aristotelian tendency to divide, i.e. the way of the West, because Eastern thinking evolved through very different patterns. Theological thinking, before Judeo-Christian religion, had different ways to look at an uncreated universe inhabited by many gods, demigods and all kind of divine and fairy creatures. Scientific thinking looks, instead, at a universe emptied of gods, but filled with atomic forces and dark cosmic energies. Hundred of years ago the inquisitor was claiming there was an Almighty, and he was His absolute servant on earth, today the inquisitor speaks the opposite language claiming there is no Almighty in the heavens and science is the only all-mighty power left. In ancient times the Almighty was the simplest explanation for everything; nowadays the simplest explanation is in the divisions of science that has been turned into the depositary of the “absolute truth” based on “facts” – as if truth is absolutely knowable and facts are not affected by interpretation. It’s strange how irrationalism can wear any coat that fits the human hubris of the historic moment. Because some men believe there is “nothing” above our skies (as if “nothing” could ever “be”) then they wish to put themselves into that vacuum, crowning man, once again, as Lord of the universe, an old idolatry for a new time. Hamlet would probably have answered: “I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.”
(Text of the lecture Scientism, nihilism or horror vacui?, given at the Association for the Advancement of Learning, Public Service Conference Center, Washington D.C.)