Dr. Michael Spezio, a psychologist and neuroscientist from Scripps College in Claremont, California and ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church USA, offered the keynote address at Goshen College’s 20th annual conference on Religion and Science on Friday. 

Spezio’s lecture was called, “Imagining the True Self,” which introduced the series for the weekend, “In Whose Image? Perspectives from Interactions of Brain Science and Abrahamic Mindfulness.” The series explored how religion can help science find the truth by offering a different perspective on what it means to be human. 

To make his point, Spezio showed two images of famous French sculptures that represent different understandings of the concept of self. The first was Auguste Rodin’s “The Thinker,” a nude, male figure resting his chin on the back of his hand, deep in thought. The second was Francois Sicard’s “Le Bon Samaritain,” depicting an injured person being carried by the man from the Biblical story known as “The Good Samaritan.”

For Spezio, “The Thinker” represents the dominant approach to scientific research today: scientists, and all humans, are individual, rational creatures who find truth by distancing themselves from their subjects. “The Thinker” sees himself as viewing reality from a third-person perspective, Spezio said.

“Le Bon Samaritain,” represents a different approach, in which humans find truth through their interactions with each other. The Good Samaritan acts from a first- or second-person perspective, and defines their humanity based on their relationship to others. 

Spezio explained that the most common question he is asked, is which sculpture is the model of the true self? He explained that we must move away from constrictive third-person science when approaching the mind and brain.

“The first- and second-person perspectives are no less part of our real, lived experience and should be taken seriously,” he said. “Science does not lead us to wells of knowledge that are dry of all emotion, creativity, and meaning.” 

On Saturday afternoon, Spezio hosted an informal, students-only session centered on discussion. The time was intentionally set apart for fluid conversation and individual interaction between participants. 

Throughout the hour, Spezio took time to learn about the students present and their final projects for the semester. He also shared about his upbringing and the stress he felt as a young man to work and be productive. 

Another focal point of conversation was the role of narrative and empathy in research. Spezio reaffirmed his belief in creating the ground for narratives and the nuances of taking a stance of humility in research. Student questions centered on the relationship between fictional narratives and empathy as well as the role of “service” and serving language. 

Spezio said Christian communities that overemphasize the language of serving create implicit power imbalances between themselves and those they seek to serve. He challenges Christians to reframe what is generally called “service” as the act of walking alongside, rather than providing for, people around the world. He urged students to carry with them what they know about empathy, advocacy, and restorative justice into their professional lives and to pursue fields that work to create a better world.

The three students in attendance seemed receptive to the informal, interactive setting. Luke Rush, a senior physics major, appreciated the conference, saying that “it’s nice to be able to ask questions without the pressure of being surrounded by professors and those with more experience.”