The meta-narrative of contemporary Western culture is nihilism, and its maxim is this: we come from nothing and are heading towards oblivion. This truism is evident when one reflects on what we pursue as objects of ultimate value. If our destiny is ultimately one of non-being, what becomes of singular importance is how we exist in the here and now. Having dispensed with the possibility of the eternity of things, the philosophy of nihilism naturally creates a world in which the only valuable pursuits are those that will grant us power, pleasure and wealth. Because of the brief window of our existence (i.e. that space which lasts from our coming into being until death), we are encouraged to make the most of this time, and to not waste a precious moment in idle reflection. Consider the popular phrase ‘you only live once’ as reflecting the nihilistic imperative that what matters is not who an individual is (for that is nothing), but what they choose to do. Value is derived not from a latent individual worth or dignity, but through one’s productivity. Not only this, but the ruthlessness with which we fight to survive betrays our ultimate concern with the world of our own selfish interests. If this were once thought of as a somewhat harsh biological fact (i.e. Darwin), within the philosophy of nihilism biology is transformed into a quasi-ethical framework for life. If there is nothing, our values are simply what we choose them to be. This process of moral creation and striving is dictated by both biology itself and other empirical sciences, which are inherently nihilistic in nature. ‘Getting the most out of life’ becomes the highest moral virtue.
Nihilism has banished the concept of eternity to the realms of historical ignorance and gullibility. If thinking about the transcendent has any place in our contemporary world, it’s surely reserved for the religious or otherwise brainwashed and feeble. Even if it were true that humanity was created imago dei, we would have little use for such thinking in a world that elevates the empirical sciences above all other forms of knowledge. Since Hume, Bacon, Darwin and others, the world we have created for ourselves has replaced the quest for meaning with the quest for facts. Irrespective of its significant and positive advances in human knowledge, the dark side of our experiment in humanism remains its underlying nihilism. However, this sense of everything ultimately being a ‘nothing’ does not necessarily mean that it is mediated through the experience of disenchantment, isolation and depression. It was certainly this way for the likes of Kierkegaard, but in essence nihilism is ingrained into our collective psyche to such an extent that it’s hardly even noticed; life simply goes on as it always has, largely unquestioned. In fact, the genius of the nihilistic spirit is that it masquerades as that which is inevitable, logical and sufficient. There can be no room for dissenting voices within a philosophy that has already claimed to know the limitations our existence. The answer to all existential concern is therefore one of resounding mockery. As Copernicus showed, the earth is not the centre of the universe, and our own considerations of life’s purpose and meaning are interpreted by many to be little more than a reflection of human arrogance. Noted evolutionary biologist Julian Huxley was one the many critics of both the theological concept of God and the pursuit of knowledge that is not based on empirical fact. With characteristic directness, Huxley remarks in an essay titled The New Divinity that ‘there is no supernatural realm: all phenomena are part of one natural process of evolution.’ (1) Because humans are related to all phenomena through complex and interrelated processes of evolution, it appears to make little sense for us to consider ourselves as distinct entities- let alone creatures with a supernatural purpose. In any case, the supernatural order is a figment of our imagination. Freud attempted to put the final nail in the God-shaped coffin by stating that religious longing was merely an attempt at divine wish fulfilment and a denial of reality. (2)
However, there are two particular problems that should give us pause before resignedly accepting our nihilistic fate. First, although nihilism is indeed the philosophical force that guides and shapes our age, existential questions still remain. This is in spite of religions numerous ‘cultured despisers,’ who see in its preoccupations a sort of pathetic grasping at straws. The search for meaning continues unabated, although those who openly profess to be dissatisfied with the legacy of historical materialism are often mocked and disregarded. Yet committed rationalists must surely concede that we have yet to build our utilitarian utopia that’s governed solely by our own reason. We do not yet inhabit that place in which existential questions are just relics of a bygone age. We may be committed to endless production and consumerism, but a subtle anxiety still manages to follow us around like an unwelcome stalker, reminding us of the truth we have suppressed. This existential anxiety (or dread, as Kierkegaard called it) can be expressed in numerous ways. Depression, addiction and suicide are natural the outcomes of deep and consistent levels of anxiety, but it can also be felt as a niggling feeling that there must be more to life than what currently is. This longing for a deeper fulfilment is, I believe, a reflection of the failure of both nihilism and scientific humanism to meet human needs.
Second, in spite of Nietzsche’s insistence that we have killed the God of the Hebrew’s, we have been unable prevent new Gods emerging to take his place. The psychological need to create Gods has continued unabated- and in fact flourished- since Nietzsche’s descent into madness. We still believe in Gods, but the nature of the deities have changed, as well as the language we use to describe them. Huxley himself appeared aware of this when he wrote that the post-Christian age ‘is undoubtedly in need of a new religion.’ He continues by envisaging such a religion being based on ‘ideas and emotions which relate man to his destiny, beyond and above the practical affairs of the everyday.’ (3) Huxley was wise enough to see that the impulse toward God and religion is immutable. Take one away, and another will surely be created- albeit one based on our own image. The fact that humanist religion dispenses with transcendent deities and revelatory knowledge does not mean it is itself free of a God complex. Rather, traditional religious and theological language is replaced with a new vernacular and ethical structure which is based on the beliefs and teachings of its followers. Nihilism and scientific humanism, therefore, have clearly failed to eliminate the philosophical need for God. Our questions now become: who are these new Gods, and do they demand our worship?
In his challenging and innovative consideration of the philosophy of nihilism, Emanuele Severino posits that the God of the nihilistic age is technology. Writing with special reference to the nihilistic context of Western Europe, Severino argues that ‘truth today means power, and technology is the supreme power.’ (4) The power of technology over each aspect of our lives is growing exponentially and this fact, coupled with a context of philosophical nihilism, creates a unique historical context. We have decided that the transcendent realm of spirit is an illusion of the past. In the world of nihilism we inhabit, ultimate power is reserved for those earthly forces able to dominate weaker ones. This is indeed a scary reality, and Nietzsche himself felt terrified of the moral and ethical black hole that would be created after the death of God. Nevertheless, the Darwinian struggle for survival and power necessitates a world of fierce competition and ruthlessness. We need to remember too that for those of us in the West, the concept of ‘power’ operates within an environment of capitalism. Capitalism grants institutions, corporations and other entities (and indeed, the individual powers behind them) broad and sweeping access to cultural influence. These forces can be considered the locus of power in the age of nihilism. Increasingly, what powers these social forces is digital technology, and particularly the internet. This expression of technologies power and influence exceeds all other forms of cultural dominance.
Yet defining ‘technology’ is a task fraught with difficulty. In some senses, the whole history of humanity can be thought of as an ongoing experiment in technological advances. From the hammers and axes of the stone age through to the development of the printing press in the 15th century, humanity’s curiosity toward ever great feats of technological development appears woven into our very DNA. In this respect ‘technology’ might appear too broad a concept, and the dangers of using such a diverse phenomenon as technology as the platform for a pointed theological-philosophical discussion are numerous. Yet what Severino is primarily concerned with are those forms of technology that shape the actual formation of human identity and self-consciousness, as opposed to those which simply assist us do things more effectively. The rationale for much technological progression throughout history has been that it helps us to live more healthily and conveniently. It also helps businesses produce a greater range and volume of goods for ever-expanding markets. Indeed, this was the guiding philosophy of the industrial revolution, which saw unprecedented shifts in how manufacturing took place, particularly in relation to the textile industry.
In contrast to this, Severino discusses the use of new types of technology as ways of altering human consciousness of self. The most significant of these technologies is the internet, and particularly social media, which can be considered totalitarian in terms of the scope of its impact. The influence of social media extends beyond our simply ‘using it’ to enhance connections and social interaction. Instead, social media has radically altered how we become and exist as human beings. It has shaped not only how we communicate, but the content of our communications. In short, the internet is the overlord of all we do. It’s attributes are hauntingly reminiscent of the God of classical theism: sovereignty, all knowing and seeing, requiring our submission, the arbitrator of morality etc. What makes this new god especially sinister is that there is actually no escaping it’s grasp in the here and now. Sure, Christian’s have their hell, but at least God gives one the option to ignore him in the present and enjoy an earthly a life of indulgence. There is no such leeway given by the deity of technology. It has become the operational centre of literally everything we do. Also, unlike the teachings of Jesus Christ, technology never forgives and always keeps a record of wrongs. Memories of scandal, impropriety, sexual failings and corruption will live on in perpetuity in the public eye. Life under the god of the internet is life under a new and particularly vicious form of law.
Is there hope for a society in which technologies pervasiveness if curbed? Can we restore the values of privacy, liberty and compassion that have disappeared under the watchful glare of the digital eye? Can we reclaim meaning and purpose as essential questions to be faced? Our answer to this largely depends of whether we acknowledge there is a problem. The technosphere has no shortage of committed disciples. And it’s admittedly very easy to point to the numerous benefits that the internet has provided (and which I enjoy every day) as justification for its ongoing proliferation. Even writing this reflection on a blog so that it might be read by those around the world is a technological miracle. Yet we cannot allow the perusal of convenience to trump all other criticism, especially those critiques that see in social media a phenomenon that is gradually dehumanising us. I for one am convinced that social media and the internet generally are leading us into a moral and cultural abyss. Any hope that we may curb the tide of digital obsession rests in our ability to follow Nietzsche’s example and prepare ourselves to kill another god. This time around it will be the god of nihilism.
(1) ‘The New Divinity’ appears in: Julian Huxley. Essays of a Humanist (London: Penguin, 1966)
(2) Sigmund Freud. The Future of an Illusion(New York: Norton, 1989), Chapter VIII.
(3) Quote taken from Huxley’s Presidential Address at the 1952 IHEU Congress.
(4) Emanuele Severino. The Essence of Nihilism. Trans. Giacomo Donis (London: Verso, 2016), 19.