“Once natural science and its image of the world had been established, the teleological conception of the natural world gave way to a mechanistic one, bringing a fundamental change in the relation between man and nature … As this intellectual process continued, the natural world assumed more and more the feature of a world cold and dead, governed by laws of mechanical necessity, completely indifferent to the fact of man. While it continues to be the world in which we live and is inseparably bound up with our existence, it is a world in which we find ourselves unable to live as man, in which our human mode of being is edged out of the picture or even obliterated.” (Religion and Nothingness, 48)
The emergence of the mechanization of human life and the transformation of man into a completely non-rational subject in pursuit of its desires are fundamentally bound up with one another. (RN, 87)
Modern science is not just an aspect of knowledge: it is an autonomous discipline with its own method based on mathematics
Already in Part 1 of Religion and Nothingness, Nishitani associates (modern) science, which had made it possible to control nature through technology, with the emergence of a view where humans see themselves as surrounded by “a cold, lifeless world,” as if “floating on a sea of dead matter. The life was snuffed out of nature … the living stream that flowed at the bottom of man and all things, and kept them bound together, dried up.” (11). He returns to the problem of science in Parts 2 and 3, where it is taken as the starting point of an inquiry which elucidates the impact of science to much deeper levels, concluding that “the emergence of the mechanization of human life and the transformation of man into a completely non-rational subject in pursuit of its desires are fundamentally bound up with one another.” (87)
Modern science, as opposed to traditional science, which was simply regarded as an aspect of knowledge, is a relatively recent development, dating back to Copernicus’ publication of his treatise on Heavenly Spheres in 1543. This is the date widely regarded as marking the launch of the scientific revolution which led Kepler, Galileo, and Newton – supported by the philosophies of Bacon and Descartes – to establish science as an autonomous discipline, based on the primacy of external observation and the experimental method which requires that results be tested through experiments.
It may be useful to brush up on the particular characteristics of modern science before moving on to Nishitani’s “existential” analysis. As Cora-Jean E. Robinson sums it up (in “The Conflict of Science and Religion in Dynamic Sunyata,” ed.Taitetsu Unno, The Religious Philosophy of Nishitani Keiji, 101-113), fundamental to the new scientific method was Descartes’s assertion of a duality “between the external realm of the body, i.e., the material domain of nature, and the internal realm of mind or soul.” Emphasis on external observation led to the assertion that “only what is external can be objective and real. And, even in the external realm, “only those characteristics are regarded as primary [i.e., objectively real] that can be quantified and measured.” In other words, as Max Planck is reported to have stated, “what cannot be measured is not real.” The birth of modern science was not a painless one, since it contradicted the tenets of Christian belief, and what is referred to as the scientific revolution actually took over a century, with Copernicus’ life actually predating Descartes’s.“The scientific method called for a language which would lend itself to unambiguous agreement about the external characteristics of an object. That language was mathematics.” Also, “because it was internal, subjective and inherently unverifiable, the realm of mind was stripped of its reality, and reality was “divested of higher feelings or of sensations.” In fact, “human consciousness” itself has now “come to be regarded merely as … governed by the mechanical laws of nature.” ( Robinson, 102)
It is this science, based on mathematics, that had brought down the teleological worldview of reality, and led to Nietzsche’s declaration about the “Death of God.” It not only plunged human lives into utter meaninglessness, but also put them under the spell of a mechanistic worldview, which threatens to denaturalise nature and dehumanise humanity. “Once natural science and its image of the world had been established, the teleological conception of the natural world gave way to a mechanistic one, bringing a fundamental change in the relation between man and nature … As this intellectual process continued, the natural world assumed more and more the feature of a world cold and dead, governed by laws of mechanical necessity, completely indifferent to the fact of man. While it continues to be the world in which we live and is inseparably bound up with our existence, it is a world in which we find ourselves unable to live as man, in which our human mode of being is edged out of the picture or even obliterated.” (RN, 48)
Science’s “air of absoluteness”: “One cannot ‘get a word in” from any point of view other than the scientific one.”
In Part 3 of Religion and Nothingness – Nihility and Sunyata – Nishitani returns to the conflict between science and religion, and remarks that it is often said that, as long as each remains within its domain, they need not come into conflict. The problem with this assertion, he notes, is that “present-day science does not feel the need to concern itself with the limits of its own standpoint … Science … seems to regard its own scientific standpoint as a position of unquestionable truth from which it can assert ifself in all directions. Hence the air of absoluteness that always accompanies scientific knowledge…The basic reason that science is able to regard its own standpoint as absolute truth rests in the complete objectivity of the laws of nature that afford scientific knowledge both its premises and its content. One cannot “get a word in” … from any point of view other than the scientific one. Criticisms and corrections may only be brought to bear from the scientific standpoint itself.” (78)
Without challenging the value of complete objectivity as science’s absolute truth, Nishitani asks: couldn’t there be two absolutes, according to the level at which reality is received, that is, whether it is seen as a natural law or as a concrete unfolding? To explain his point he takes the example of a man tossing a crust of bread and a dog leaping up to catch it. From one angle, all “things/beings” – the man, the dog, and the bread – and their movements are subject to physico-chemical laws. But from another, that of the concrete particularities of each of these things – the particular man, the particular dog, and the particular crust of bread – these do “exist in their own proper mode of being and their own proper form … and that as such they maintain a special relationship among themselves.” (79) There is, then, two ways of seing the scene, as the manifestation of a natural law, or as the concrete interaction between the three particular “things/beings” actually taking place. One could therefore say that each angle is an absolute, and relate to each other as the two sides of a sheet of paper. The natural law has to be embodied in a particular set of things to be grasped, but, conversely, the man could not have thrown the bread to the dog, had not there been a set of natural laws making this possible.
Nishitani then remarks that “in the case of living organisms, the rule of law is encountered on the dimension of instinct … Instinctive behavior is the law of nature become manifest.” (80) In humans, however, natural laws do not become manifest as instincts, they must be apprehended through knowledge. The law of nature embodied in living things is grasped by the human intellect as a rational order which displays a purposive or teleological character. Even pre-civilised humans, when crafting tools, had to have some form of understanding of how nature operates. And it is even more so, of course, when it comes to technology. “Unlike simple instinct, technology implies an intellectual apprehension of these laws.” (81)
Machines and mechanical technology are man’s ultimate embodiment and appropriation of the laws of nature.
At the same time as technology requires a knowledge of the laws of nature, technological advances expand our knowledge of these laws, since instruments can be designed to allow us to look deeper into reality than our eyes, or our minds, can. Yet, Nishitani insists, “even here, in the work that man performs through his technological activity in accordance with the laws of nature, these laws remain “at work” and indeed are that very work itself.” (81) Uneasy as we are with the proliferation of technology and its obvious harmful effect on nature, we tend not to realise that technology itself is an application of the laws of nature. It could not but be that, as we can only do what nature allows us to do. “Machines and mechanical technology are man’s ultimate embodiment and appropriation of the laws of nature.” (82)
Now, the laws of nature govern all things, but their control deepens as we go from inanimate objects to animate beings, then on to humans who, in addition, have an intellect. So, “the rational order of existence exhibits a manifold perspective whose teleological character becomes increasingly more marked as it ascends the levels of being until it eventually comes to complete actualization in the machine, where the purposive activity of man functions in a purely mechanical manner. Here the rule of the laws may be said to attain its final and deepest point.” (82)
“The emergence of the machine marks the supreme emancipation from the rule of the laws of nature.”
At the same time, as this rule of the laws of nature deepens, there is a parallel “gradual deepening in the power of things to make use of the laws of nature” … to gain freedom from these laws. “The higher we proceed up the chain of being, the deeper the reach of the rule of law; but, at the same time, the more fully actualized the freedom of things that use those laws.”(82-83)
“Machines are pure products of human intellect, constructed for man’s own purposes … yet the workings of the laws of nature find their purest expression in machines, purer than in any of the products of nature itself.” (83) In fact, “in the machine, human work can be said to have passed beyond the character of human work itself, to have objectified itself and assumed the character of an immediate working of the laws of nature themselves.” (83). This passing beyond human work looks ominous. Nishitani, however, repeats: “the emergence of the machine marks the supreme emancipation from the rule of the laws of nature.” (84)
We are in a situation in which we must speak of the controller becoming the controlled.
Nishitani also adds (and it may be good to recall that Nishitani wrote this essay in the 1950s, as it is so much more relevant now than it was then): “Of utmost importance for us here, however, is a serious problem that has come about since the relationship between the laws of nature and things entered its final stage with the emergence of the machine. Simply put, that relationship is now in a process of inversion. We are in a situation in which we must speak of the controller becoming the controlled.” (84)
Nishitani’s above statement that, “The higher we proceed up the chain of being, the deeper the reach of the rule of law; but, at the same time, the more fully actualized the freedom of things that use those laws” implies that “a relationship of control obtains on both sides: laws rule over things,” the more so as they go up the chain of being, and things/beings “rule over laws,” as they gain more freedom from these laws. “With the emergence of the machine, the relationship reached an extreme which in turn has given rise to a new situation.” (84)
On the field where machines are designed and manufactured, we have an encounter between two factors: “on the side of man, an abstract intellect seeking scientific rationality; and on the side of nature, what we might call a “denaturalized” nature that I described above as “purer than nature itself.” This field is gradually coming to look like something that deprives man of his very humanity… here the laws of nature come to reassume control over man who controls the laws of nature. This situation is usually referred to as the tendency toward the mechanization of man, toward the loss of the human.” (85) Since we can only access the laws of nature through knowledge, as reflected in our minds, the very endeavour to control these laws in order to be free from them, requires that these laws shape – mechanise – our minds, and take control of us inwardly at the same time as we strive to be free from them outwardly.
Additionally, “just as the mechanization of man is an inversion of his rule over the laws of nature, so too an inversion occurs in the rule of the laws over man. Here the rule of the laws of nature, arrived at the extreme of a profound, internal control of man, opens up a mode of being in which man behaves as if the stood entirely outside the laws of nature. Simply put, it is a mode of being at whose ground nihility opens up.” (85)
Nihility is lived as a life of raw and impetuous desire
Nishitani speaks of this nihility as a sort of refuge, the only place where humans are able “to find complete freedom from the laws of nature.” (85) Keen as they are to be free from the laws of nature, humans end up seemingly standing outside reality! In addition the standpoint of reason, where things are encountered as representations as if on a screen in front of us, as such generates a sense of separation between humans and reality. From time immemorial man has spoken of a life in keeping with the law or order of nature. Here that mode of being is completely broken through. In its place there appears a mode of being wherein a man situates himself on the freedom of nihility and behaves as if he were using the laws of nature entirely from without. It is the mode of being of the subject that has adapted itself to a life of raw and impetuous desire, of naked vitality. In this sense it takes on a form close to “instinct”; but as the mode of being of a subject situated on nihility, it is, in fact, diametrically opposed to “instinct.” (86)
This mode of being where indulgence in the naked vitality of life is rooted in nihilism takes a variety of forms, from masses of people throwing themselves into sports, rock festivals, and other forms of entertainment, to people withdrawing from society and immersing themselves in virtual realities. What has happened is that, as the rationalisation of life increased over the past centuries, “another standpoint [has] gather[ed] strength, the growing affirmation of a pre-reflective human mode of being that is totally non-rational and non-spiritual, the stance of the subject that locates itself on nihility as it pursues its own desires unreservedly.”(86)
Hence, Nishitani’s conclusion: “The emergence of the mechanization of human life and the transformation of man into a completely non-rational subject in pursuit of its desires are fundamentally bound up with one another.” (87)
One is tempted to say, at this point, that this unrestrained pursuit of one’s desires, which results in runaway consumption, is, at least in part, the reason why humans are causing so much damage to the planet. We are the “hungry ghosts” of Buddhist teachings, always hungry, always eating, and never satisfied. From that standpoint, unless we free ourselves from that unbridled indulgence, there is no hope for humankind. But this aspect of our predicament was not clearly apparent at the time Nishitani was writing. Nishitani’s worry is the loss of our humanity. Just as Descartes had transformed animals into machines, there would be reason to fear that humans would slowly be changed into “robots”! But though Nishitani does say that human lives have become mechanised, what he really emphasises is that they have fallen prey to a life of unrestrained indulgence in the endless pursuit of gratification. This is because humans have come to see themselves as standing outside reality, cut off from the energy immanent in actual, embodied life, with which they can only reconnect through a systematic quest for “peak experiences.”
To be precise, the “life of raw and impetuous desire,” as we see it around us even more clearly now than was the case for Nishitani, is what he calls a “krypto-nihilism,” (86) as the individuals indulging in it see themselves as living life to the full, as one imagines animals do when driven by instinct. In fact, it is deliberate chase after “highs” as the natural empathy with the concrete, actual, unfolding of reality – the pleasure felt by the man throwing the bread to his dog and its leaping with joy – is now out of reach. It’s like running out of water and being left with the formula H2O written on a piece of paper!
For the individuals steeped in the endless drive to seek gratifications, the first step has to be to see through this lifestyle, and recognise it as the product of nihilism. Nishitani’s signature concept is that nihilism can only be overcome by passing through it. As he explains in Part 1, nihility is “always just underfoot“ (3) as the ground of emptiness (formlessness) which self-realises through our awareness as the forms of the world in which we live. But it is only when things go badly wrong for us, and our lives are besieged by a sense of meaninglessness, that we are, as it were, compelled to face this nihility. Meaninglessness arises when the way we understand reality is at odds with our experience of reality. To reconnect with the concrete, actual reality, we need to return to what Nishida called a “pure experience” of reality. Nishitani tells us that this can only take place through “a conversion from the self-centred … mode of being, which always asks what use things have for us …, to an attitude that asks for what purpose we ourselves … exist.” (4-5) When embraced, nihility becomes the standpoint of emptiness, not as a thing called emptiness on which we stand, but as an activity of self-emptying, through which we can reconnect with our true, elemental, empathetic self, and recover a grasp of the things of the world as they are on their home-ground, behind whatever they are for us and, in particular, whatever “use” they have for us. We can then see reality through a “double-exposure,” as the manifestation of natural laws, and as the interaction between particular, unique things or beings as they “exist in their own proper mode of being and their own proper form.” (79) This reconnection with concrete, experienced reality on the field of emptiness would mark a reintegration of the human within reality, and allow individuals to re-create meaning and values, so that science and technology, which are obviously here to stay, do not wreck either our lives or the planet.