Contributor: Jennifer M.L. Stephens
There are countless examples of transhumanist thinking percolating into modern entertainment over the past decades. In “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” Iron Man and Captain America have a conversation about the transhuman artificial intelligence (AI)-synthetic humanoid character named Vision.
Captain America: “The rules have changed.”
Iron Man: “We’re dealing with something new.”
Captain America: “The Vision is artificial intelligence.”
Iron Man: “A machine.”
Captain America: “So, it doesn’t count?”
Iron Man: “No, it’s not like a person lifting the hammer.”
In Star Trek “First Contact” the Borg Queen and Lieutenant Commander Data, a robot, discuss humanity from a transhumanist perspective. She tells him, “Human! We used to be exactly like them. Flawed. Weak. Organic. But we evolved to include the synthetic. Now we use both to attain perfection. Your goal should be the same as ours.”
The ideology of transhumanism first laid roots within Neo-Darwinist science fiction written by Julian Huxley (1957, New Bottles for New Wine) and has grown to be the leading idea of our post-postmodern era. It is the pragmatic ontological extension of posthumanism, a philosophy that arose organically in the mid- twentieth century when long-held cultural ideas and social foundations were routinely being examined and discarded. Ihab Hassan (1977) lamented in the essay “Prometheus as performer: Toward a postmodern culture?” that the natural death of humanism occurred with postmodernism and thus necessitated the development of posthumanism. If humanism supports the human as an individual and embraces human autonomy and agency, posthumanism rejects the notion of an anthropocentric natural world. Michel Foucault wrote in his The Order of Things (1971) that the concept of man will vanish “like a face drawn into the sand at the edge of the sea” (p. 408). Cultural and philosophical posthumanism focuses on the enmeshment of the human with the natural world in biological, chemical, and physical ways in which the human is neither unique nor special. Strains of posthumanist ideology include transhumanism, but also include a host of other branches including the antihuman movement, the voluntary human extinction movement, and artificial intelligence (AI).
The transhumanist believes that the human is outdated, clunky, and in need of a reboot. The incredible rise of technology over the past thirty years has allowed people of varying backgrounds and agendas to entertain the idea that humankind can be changed and edited for a better human. The underpinnings of this philosophy are, of course, that humans as God/nature made them are flawed. These mortal creatures are imbued with natural qualities which make transhumanist believers appalled including the ability to get sick and the destiny to die. Therefore, the most logical thing to do now that amazing advancements in technology around artificial intelligence (AI), microchips and nanotech, and gene-editing (via CRISPR) have been achieved is to upgrade the human into a new species. In this post-human world, the human becomes merged with physical tech to become a cyborg. The cyborg is not God’s creature, nor does it derive naturally from the earth. The cyborg will be entirely a product of humankind and, as such, is atheist and anti-religious in a way that removes the need for spirituality, ethics, morals, and virtues.
The pinnacle of transhumanism is the Singularity, a term drawn from theoretical physics to describe the crushing of a mass of irrational concepts into one small point. The Singularity represents the moment when artificial intelligence (AI) overcomes human intelligence, and in that moment it will be possible for the human being to be merged with technology in a way that overcomes death. Ray Kurzweil (2006) describes that genetics, nanotechnology, and robotics (GNR) will be joined to download the human being into what he calls “substrates,” or robotic copies of original humans. At the moment this is possible, human beings will not only stop to exist, but it will be unnecessary for them to exist. The theoretical groundwork for this movement to the Singularity is being laid aggressively with scholars, economists, politicians, and scientists working towards the Nietzschean Übermensch, or the highest evolved being. Steeped in Darwinist evolution, the transhumanist seeks to artificially develop the human into the post-human in a similar way that the early homo species evolved into the Homo sapiens sapiens dominating our world today. Therefore, transhumanism is a movement to seek the end of the human being and the end of humanism and instead seek a Borg-like collective in which the individual is subsumed within the greater technological web of human activity.
Nursing has long prided itself to be a discipline based on the human being and humanist philosophy. Humanism is the Renaissance revival of ancient Greek and Roman thought that the human is a unique creature capable of speech and reason and distinctly autonomous and superior over nature. The humanist model enacted in nursing embraces patient-centered care and promotes the person-as-individual. Humanism holds that each care experience is unique and as such, personal values, goals, and preferences should guide clinical decisions. The greatest nurse philosophers and theorists that have laid the foundation of our modern, professional nursing discipline were all humanists. Think of Parse, Carper, Watson, Henderson, Rogers, just to name a few. Our notion of the nursing meta-paradigm concepts of person, environment, health, and nursing are all steeped in deep humanism and thus human qualities such as compassion, ethics, autonomy, virtue, integrity, and caring (Thompson, 1980).
If the future is moving away from humanism to one based on small populations of cyborgs yearning for Singularity, what will become of nursing?
Foucault, M. (1971). The order of things: An archaeology of the human sciences (1st American ed.). Pantheon Books.
Hassan, I. (1977). “Prometheus as performer: Toward a postmodern culture?”. In M. Benamou and C. Caramello (Eds.), Performance in Postmodern Culture. Coda Press.
Kurzweil, R. (2006). The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology. Penguin.
Thompson, J. D. (1980). The passionate humanist: From Nightingale to the new nurse. Nursing Outlook, 28(5), 290-295.
About Jennifer Stephens
Jennifer Stephens is an Assistant Professor at the University of Wyoming Fay W. Whitney School of Nursing. Long ago before she was a nurse, Jennifer was a professional historian with focuses on Early Modern philosophy and public history. Fast-forward a few decades and she is now a long-time oncology nurse with extensive nursing experience in both the US and Canada. Jennifer’s overwhelming passion is nursing philosophy and theory, and she is an avid reader of transhumanist and posthumanist literature.