Humility, empathy and discovery in science and in ministry
Michael Spezio is one of those rare people who has put more than one passion into his daily work.
Spezio is an associate professor of psychology, neuroscience, and data science at Scripps College in Claremont, California. He is also ordained Minister of the Word and the Sacraments in the Presbyterian Church (United States). At Scripps, Spezio heads the Evaluation and Emotion Investigation Lab (LIVE Lab) and his research focuses on emotion as cognition and awareness of evaluative representations of self and others in decision making.
Recently he took the time to chat with Covalency her work and reflections on what we know about ourselves through the shared lens of faith and science with her life in the laboratory and in ministry.
Covalency: What does your work as a neuroscientist consist of? How is your lab?
Spezio: My work is primarily with undergraduate research associates in the Assessment and Emotion Investigation Lab.
So much of my day-to-day work is informative and I try the best I can to mentor new researchers as they learn to apply what they have learned in the courses and learn additional aspects beyond that. courses to do new research. Developing concepts of empathy, theory of mind, awareness of self and others takes time.
Developing strong quantitative thinking and integrating it with interdisciplinary engagement that includes the humanities is hard work and is not really addressed in most of the undergraduate program’s disciplinary courses. Even where such courses promise interdisciplinarity, they generally mean by “interdisciplinary” the practice of applying their own discipline (e.g., computer science, psychology, neuroscience, history, scientific and technological studies, media studies) to the analysis of other disciplines, without paying attention and learning the theoretical constructs, methods and standards of judgment in these disciplines.
My lab tries to teach students the importance of authentic interdisciplinarity, which recognizes hard work and knowledge across disciplines, while seeking to overcome the disciplinary and siled boundaries of dominant approaches to complex problems. For example, the way cognitive science generally approaches moral action is to ignore moral philosophy or caricature it into “rational” and “emotional” theories.
Neuroethics generally works by making very simplistic extrapolations from fMRI or EEG or injury studies to conclude that “free will” does or does not exist, or that a particular ethical theory is incompatible with it. rationality in a neuronally defined sense. In my laboratory and in my ethics courses (Data Science Ethics & Justice; Neuroethics), ethical theory comes first, before scientific investigation of moral action and before designing ethical applications in science.
In this way, we can engage brilliant researchers in all of these fields and learn from their work, and understand how the questions they ask and the proposals they make provide insight, pause and point to new interdisciplinary opportunities. One of those opportunities in my own lab is empathy and theory of mind work. In our work with communities dedicated to overcoming seemingly insurmountable barriers between people and groups, we have seen new designs and practices of empathy which are in line with Edith Stein’s groundbreaking work and which do not overlap much. with the theories that drive the work. in cognitive science, neuroscience, literary criticism and political science. We hope to develop this work more carefully and systematically so that it is accessible to a wide range of academics and to people doing essential work in marginalized communities.
Covalency: You are also an ordained minister, aren’t you? Which one came first?
Spezio: My training as a scientist came first, but my own call to ordained ministry predated that. In my practical life now, I spend much more time doing the activities of a qualified scientist and scholar than in preaching and the sacraments. In my tradition, ordained ministers are known as Old Teachers. I hope that my work will be done with a sense of the sanctity of life and the inclusiveness of divine love for all, especially for those who are deeply hurt and excluded by the dynamics of power in societies.
Covalency: Lately, much of your research has focused on mental processes related to things that seem unmeasurable by science – i.e. forgiveness, empathy, compassion. What can science tell us about such emotions?
Spezio: Empathy, compassion, theory of mind, and forgiveness are difficult to study scientifically when compared to the study of overt behaviors or cell dynamics or the nucleus of a cell. What we have been able to do so far shows us first of all that these are really important for the work of transforming the real world in the most difficult contexts.
Unlike the mainstream narratives that criticize these moral categories as inapplicable outside limited and small-scale contexts, too ‘idealistic’ for large-scale international issues, big data, and problem-solving, what we see is that doing the hard work between real people absolutely depends on these values, albeit in forms and practices that are not always in keeping with popular conceptions of them.
Beyond the phenomena themselves, we have discovered that risky action on behalf of others, in solidarity with others, can take on a different evaluation structure of oneself and of the other. Cognitive computer models reveal that those who do risky solidarity work tend to tie the worth of self to the value of the other. It’s exciting and challenges the dominant models of self / other valuation that inform most economic and political theories as well as behavioral economics and neuroeconomics.
Covalency: You recently discussed humility and empathy with the religious and scientific audience. Can you broadly discuss what you discovered during your research in relation to these two ideas?
Spezio: I am not sure that we have “discovered” anything that was not already known by these people and communities who do the hard work of personal and group transformation, except for the formal mathematical modeling which supports their demands and their training.
In terms of moral philosophy and the cognitive science of moral action, we’ve found that the kind of humility at the heart of this hard work is interpersonal openness and not so much intellectual humility, and not self-denial at all. . Humility is a movement of what we call ‘kenotic empathy’, in which I do not identify with the other or assume that I am similar to the other or understand where the other lives and experimented. On the contrary, humility as a practice of kenotic empathy empties me of my assumptions of the other and frees me of space to welcome them, see them, hear them, so that I can begin to understand.
In kenotic empathy, in humility, then I also depend on the other’s kenotic empathy as it reveals itself to me in a way perhaps outside of my current first-person awareness.
Covalency: What do you see in human consciousness, if any, that perhaps suggests a connection to a greater consciousness at work in the universe?
Spezio: The problem of human consciousness has been treated solipsistically for too long, focusing only on subjective or first-person consciousness.
The way we see and know the color “red” is really interesting, of course. First-person experiences are important to study and understand. But how we see and know, how we become aware of the experience that we have that there is another person, another “I” who speaks to me as an “I”, it is for me and for my work the primordial question.
This question is at the heart of understanding our evolutionary history, our cultural histories, and it is at the heart of our path to inclusive and flourishing futures. I think this issue requires a deep interdisciplinary engagement, attentive to the wisdom traditions of cultures across time and space, and most importantly to the lived practice of such awareness in communities demonstrating the type of transformation that is genuinely inclusive. for real belonging. Our work with such communities shows that these experiences are still rooted in a tradition, a set of teachings and practices, which each person experiences according to their own transformed consciousness.
Thus, this type of consciousness is not solipsistic, nor is it limited to two or three people or the number of people who see and hear each other at any given time. What founds and founds it, surrounds it, invites exploration and deep listening among diverse experiences.