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Sally Severino on John Scotus, neuroscience and Open Access publishing

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We are pleased to publish an interview with Dr. Sally Severino on Open Science dot com. Dr. Severino received her M.D. from Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons. As a prominent New York based Freudian psychoanalyst, she was the first female President of the American College of Psychoanalysts. Her first book, “Becoming Fire”, was an instant hit among fellow scientists. She now resides in New Mexico. Recently she has published a book “Behold Our Moral Body. Psychiatry, Duns Scotus, and Neuroscience” with De Gruyter Open.

You are a psychiatrist, what turns you to studies on morality?

I think there were at least three sources of my interest in morality. The first one, and I talk about it in the introduction to my book, arose from my children. When they were very small, I watched them respond with moral behaviors that absolutely amazed me. Their behaviors raised a question in my mind – what is a morality? It seemed to be more than following the rules of right and wrong. So my children’s behaviors were the first source of my interest in morality.

The second source was my identity. As a person and as a psychiatrist I have always seen myself as a bridge builder. One of the bridges that I was constantly trying to build was a bridge between psychiatry and religion. There is a group in the US called “The Group for the Advancement in Psychiatry” and I was a member of its committee for psychiatry and religion. That was the second source.

The third source was all of the people in psychology and neuroscience who were studying morality. There is a book series “Moral Psychology” and its third volume “Moral Psychology: The Neuroscience of Morality – Emotion, Brain Disorders, and Development” by Walter Sinnott-Armstrong is filled with chapters by colleagues studying morality. People like Michael Gazzaniga, author of “The Ethical Brain: The Science of Our Moral Dilemmas” or Andrew Newberg who recently published the book “The Metaphysical Mind: Probing the Biology of Philosophical Thought.” There was a whole group of people with interests the same as mine. I think that these were the three sources that led me to study morality.

Why did you decide to study works of the medieval philosopher John Duns Scotus?

I had a very dear friend, Monsignor John K. Daly, who early in my academic life mentioned John Duns Scotus to me and at the time I was very interested in Scotus’ ideas, but he was very difficult to read and I really did not fully understand him. Scotus focused on several concepts. One was desire, one was free will, one was emotion – especially love, and the other was relationships. These four focuses of his attention were coming up in the research I was reading about, on morality. Thus each time I read about desire, free will, love, and relationships, I went back to study John Duns Scotus a little more. Eventually I realized that neuroscience and Scotus were talking about the same thing.

Generally speaking, how much do neuroscience and philosophy overlap?

I think they complement each other. Historically science arose out of philosophy. Philosophy was the systematic analysis of the world around us. So, science and philosophy began as closely related. Then, science went in a different direction. With the Scientific Revolution, science began looking for empirical evidence. So science and philosophy grew apart, but I think now they both have something complementary to say to each other. Taken together they give us a more complete understanding of morality, for instance.

John Duns Scotus gives us a view on what morality is, but neuroscience tells us about the human brain and where morality is processed – how our physiological bodies process morality. Our bodies are a kind of medium through which we interpret philosophy. That is how neuroscience and John Duns Scotus come together. Generally, I think that when we take philosophy and science together we get a more complete picture of morality.

But what about culture? You argue that our moral values are localized in our physical bodies. Does it mean that they are universal among different cultures and times?

That is a very important question! I would choose a different word than “localized”. I would say that our physical bodies process morality or mediate morality. People in different cultures and different times have physiological bodies, so you might say there is some universality in that, but morality is not a one-way process. In other words, different times and cultures affect our bodies and teach us our moral values. For example, a culture that is predominantly shame oriented will produce people with predominantly shame-centered morality and a culture that is predominantly guilt oriented will produce people with guilt-centered morality. Of course this example is oversimplified. We are given bodies capable of behaving morally. That is universal. But different times and cultures teach our bodies to value different moral virtues. So there is a complex interactive process between our bodies and cultures that results in morality.

Why did you choose to publish your book in an Open Access model?

I like to try new venues and I had never published an Open Access book before. I think it offers new horizons, new audiences and potentially it can improve education because it’s going to reach more people and be more accessible. That is what attracted me.

You have also published works in a traditional model. What are the main differences for you as an author between the traditional and OA model?

I think the major difference is peer review. Even though my academic papers in traditional journals were peer-reviewed, none of the books that I published in the traditional model were. I very much valued the input that I received from the people who peer-reviewed this book, and I think the peer review much improved the book.

Which of these models (OA or traditional) is in your opinion better for researchers?

Definitively Open Access! It gives people the possibility to discover books much faster.

You decided to try out Open Access, but how did you choose your publisher?

Actually it was a kind of gift. I had my book almost finished when I received an email asking me to consider submitting an open access book proposal to Versita (which is now De Gruyter Open). It was perfect timing! And I was so interested in Open Access before, so I submitted a proposal and it was accepted. That’s why I happened to publish with Versita. So meeting this publisher was a gift.

What did your cooperation with the publisher look like? Could you describe the editorial process at De Gruyter Open from an author’s perspective?

It took about a year. That’s very fast in publishing and it was smooth. I had good cooperation with Robert Merecz, the editor with whom I worked. I felt that the editorial process was truly a joint effort.

What are your scientific plans at the moment?

I am a Felician Associate of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary Province in Rio Rancho in New Mexico and they have asked me to write a history of their Province. I began it three weeks ago and it seems to be a very nice project. I am very interested in it.

You have changed the field of your studies!

Yes, a new door has opened!

Good luck then and thank you very much!

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  1. The interview was very interesting and very enlightening. It was a good learning for me with regard to the author’s sources of interest in morality and the recognition of how the work of Duns Scotus and neuroscience relate.

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