Nihilism comes from the Latin root for nothing. Nihilism represents a belief that existence is senseless and useless. It also refers to sacrifice of meaningful existence defined by spiritual values, struggle and pain, in favor of pleasurable, comfortable and secure life. Post-modern writers such as Updike, Nietzsche and Heidegger argue that modern society is nihilistic. These writers claim that since modern science causes nihilism by destroying human nature and spiritual framework of life, it is itself nihilistic.
In order to determine why modern science is nihilistic, it is important to analyze what modern science is and how it influences human beings. First of all, in time before development of modern science, universe was a mystery for human beings. All of the natural phenomena such as death, pain, thunder, sunshine, etc. had a certain meaning. In order to explain these phenomena, people invented god and religion. Historically, up until the enlightenment the majority of the world population believed in existence of superior being, the Creator, and worshiped him/her.
Spirituality played an important role in peoples lives. Religion provided directions for humanity and gave meaning to life. Further, religion brought people together making them bond. Human beings learned how to communicate with one another; and thus, developed norms and regulations of human behavior in society. One of the major concepts of social interactions became human dignity. One should respect dignity of another individual. With the development of modern science, many mysteries of life became explainable.
Science offers rational explanation to almost every aspect of human life, even human nature. For instance, Charles Darwin developed a detailed theory of how human beings came to existence, how they evolved and what factors influenced evolution. Modern science led to a distraction of spiritual framework of life. It separated people from religion. They believed that since they were capable to explain everything, they did not need god anymore, they considered themselves god. Modern science came into existence for the purpose of technology.
Technological innovations made it possible to realize more and more ideas. For instance, medical technology made it possible to prolong life. Thus, once it is understood by human beings that medical treatment or machines could extend their lives, death, which is the greatest mystery of life, loses its significance. Human beings tend to fear death. Fear of death makes them creative. People invent goals in life and commit themselves to achieving them. Human beings desire to live life of action so that they can reach their goals because they do not know how long they are going to live.
Modern science with its medical technologies convinces people that they should not think about death and be happy in the moment. Consequently, people become less concerned with their goals because they know that they can postpone death, life itself loses meaning. Furthermore, scientists invented cars, phones, computers, etc. Technological progress made life more pragmatic. Moreover, life became unbearable without cars, phones, computers, etc. The goal in peoples lives became the acquisition of bare necessities of modern world.
As a result, it became a need to spend more time working in order to earn more money so one can buy a car, a phone, or other material goods. Technology becomes essential to life. Heidegger states in his book The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays that: But this much remains correct: modern technology is too is a means to an end. That is why the instrumental conception of technology conditions every attempt to bring man into the right relation to technology. Everyday depends on our manipulating technology in the proper manner as a means. We will, as we say, get technology spiritual at hand.
We will master. The will to master becomes all the more urgent the more technology threatens to slip from human control. Eventually, human beings lose control over technology. It takes control over human beings, and in turn, modern technology entraps people. Human beings lose themselves in their occupations. Subsequently, they become machines, believing that their worth is measured solely by their level of production and size of the material possessions. In that state human beings sacrifice spiritual life to the pragmatic life of comfort and security.
Thus, modern science, which laid foundations for technological development, is nihilistic. John Updike portrays the influence of modern science and technology on society in his book In the Beauty of the Lilies. His characters represent the ways in which society has changed with development of modern science. Updike argues that human beings are most happy in their contact with nature. He believes that the most important thing in life is relationship with god as oppose to science and technology. God cannot be approached through reason.
Also, reason cannot explain anything about human nature or human purpose. Modern science imposes rationalism and reason upon human society, which leads to a decay of human nature. For example, the main character, Clarence Wilmot, churchs Reverend, loses his faith in god and acquires faith in science. He resigns from his position and starts selling encyclopedias. Clarence Wilmote transforms from a person who speaks for god to a person who promotes science. He finds a substitute for his faith provided by modern technologies, motion pictures.
He ends up spending entire days watching movies. Another character, Alma, is a movie star. She considers herself a god. Alma is worshiped by Americans because she is beautiful and wealthy. Her physical appearance and her bank accounts determine her worth. She is not concerned about anything but her beauty and bank accounts. Clearly, Alma would be a nobody without motion picture industry. Movies are a product of technology, and in turn, technology is a product of modern science; therefore, Almas life is completely defined by modern science.
Clerence Wilmot and Alma reflect on the idea that modern science is responsible for society turning away from human nature and rejecting religion, which makes society nihilistic. Nietzsche reinforces the idea that modern science leads to nihilism in his Twilight of the Idols. From his point of view, the only way for human beings to experience life and acquire knowledge is through their senses. Modern science with its rationalism makes people live in opposition to their senses and instincts. According to Nietzsche, true happiness can be found only in life of action.
Modern science leads to passivity, and thus, takes away true happiness from peoples lives. Rationalism and passivity destroy human nature with its spirituality leaving behind robots. Unfortunately, human beings are unable to realize that they become robots who experience life solely through means offered by technology. People unconsciously adopted an opinion that the more they have, the more pleasurable their life would be. Once, under influence of science and technology, effortless and painless life becomes a norm, pleasure and preservation of ones body from harm becomes of the most value.
Nietzsche further claims that pain and struggle is a stimulus in life. A person cannot fully understand the beauty of life without knowing its dark sides. Nietzsche states: The most spiritual human beings, if we assume that they are the most courageous, also experience by far the most painful tragedies: but just for that reason they honor life because it pits its greatest opposition against them. Only when an individual has to struggle for his or her happiness, he or she can truly appreciate life.
In conclusion, modern science produces false images and opinions. It guides people to seek the most pleasurable life avoiding struggle and pain. It is clear that such life loses its meaning. Science and technology offers a life in which everything is already created for human beings. The only thing they have to do is to consume the resources. Ultimately, it causes people to become self-centered nihilists. Since modern science leads people to choose life of comfort, pleasure and security over meaningful, spiritual life, modern science is itself nihilistic.