A Mutual Learning Exercise underneath the stars: discussing Neuro-Enhancement in a Philosophy Café

During the night of June 12th 2014, at Porto’s Planetarium, a group of citizens gathering for their usual Philosophy Café discussed the issues of human enhancement under a starry dome.

A Philosophy Café (a Café Philosophique) is not a lecture or a class about philosophy; it does not aim to convey or evaluate acquired knowledge but is rather a space for dialogue and reflection on philosophical topics that respects everyone’s right to intervene and occurs in very different locations (pubs, cafés, libraries, bookshops, literary clubs, schools, universities, etc.). In Porto, organized by the Clube Filosófico do Porto (Porto’s Philosophical Club) and its founder, Tomás Magalhães Carneiro, there have been over 200 of them since 2008.

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This, however, was one of the very few Philosophical Cafés “underneath the stars”, the so-called “Cosmological Cafés”. Thanks to CAUP (Centro de Astrofísica da Universidade do Porto – Centre for Astrophysics of the University of Porto) and particularly the efforts of Ricardo Reis and Filipe Pires, these Philosophical Cafés take place at Porto’s Planetarium with the participants discussing in the dark and contemplating the celestial dome. The lights are turned off once the participants are explained two rules: we can call them the silence rule and the continuity rule. The former demands every partaker to wait as long as the duration of the last contribution before speaking. The latter requests that every intervention be (as far as possible) related to the preceding one. Before the event finishes the lights are again turned on, and people can discuss not so much the question but how the exchange took place and whether knowledge was collaboratively created.


So, last June, with NERRI’s IBMC.INEB team cooperation, the question posed by Tomás Magalhães Carneiro for that Cosmological Café, “Could Science make us superhumans?”, enticed a fruitful and passionate discussion about human enhancement. After a few attempts at a conceptual clarification of the concept of “superhuman”, initial optimism in the capacities of science was evidenced by some participants, particularly when it comes to fusing biology and technology, until the moment when a few raised their doubts about whether to be superhuman would lead to dominate others and whether or not science is an accomplice of economics. Some participants seemed to regard science as dangerous, a hidden form of domination practiced by a minority and regarded as sacred by most of the population. “Why can't literature, poetry or cinema have the same potential”, “why is it only up to science to make us superhumans, what's so special about science”?, some questioned. Many other good questions were: “if superhuman means to be better, at what are we supposed to be improving ourselves?” and “if we’re talking about an evolutionary turn, when will it happen and how will we know?”.

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In the end, participants acknowledged some theoretical and practical difficulties: not only are “science” and “superhuman” (as others term deriving from “human”) extremely hard to conceptually elucidate but also that the first rule of the Cosmological Café is the harder one to follow, given the difficulty of keeping track of time in the dark. To build knowledge together, everyone recognized, is not an easy undertaking. Having the Planetarium as a stage, though, and going through the experience of staring at the stars in the dome and truly listening and reflecting in silence about other people’s thoughts has a unique and distinctive quality as a Mutual Learning Exercise.