Looking back looking forward
Aug 14, 2023

Looking Back, Looking Forward with Dr. Andrew Serazin (podcast)

Hear about how adversarial collaboration fuels progress in scientific research; how technology can help us become more human; and how forgiveness serves as a transformative tool for human flourishing.

By Templeton Staff

Templeton World Charity Foundation (TWCF) President Dr. Andrew Serazin recently sat down with Stories of Impact podcast for a conversation with journalist Richard Sergay about the recent advances in the scientific study of human flourishing, and what's next for the foundation.

Listen to the podcast episode with the above player.

Key Takeaways

A Flourishing Future: More Than Just Survival
TWCF believes "now is an essential time to bring together researchers, policy makers, and practitioners to examine what's possible for the future of human flourishing." Over the past decade, there's been a dramatic increase in research activity in areas such as positive psychology, philosophy, technology, cognition, and neuroscience. "This is driven by a real human need: we need to find ways to move past survival as the end goal for our society," says Serazin. "Our goal for society should be more than that. It should be about growth and flourishing and resilience and adaptation to change and learning and possibility and creativity."

Technology in Service of Human Flourishing
For a piece in TIME Magazine, Serazin offers insights into how technology can help us become more human. He follows up with many of these in the podcast conversation — most notably, how, as technology progresses, optimizing it to strengthen human capacities rather than ignore or impede them is vital for a flourishing future. A major barrier to this may be that efficiency is seen as the primary goal in technology development. This efficiency certainly helps in "narrow slices of our lives," but Serazin emphasizes that it overshadows the "things that are really the substance of our life...the things that we want to enable in our kids, the things we hope our communities value. They're so important, yet they don't really filter out into many different kinds of cultural products that our society creates, including one of the most important cultural products — technology." He shares, "I think there's this narrative — certainly, I feel it today — that we are really at the mercy of technology. We're at the receiving end of the deliverances of technological productions. But this doesn't have to be the default." In both the article and the podcast, Serazin points to "MindLight," a video game controlled by neurofeedback, as an example of how application of digital technologies can be used to help encourage positive character growth. Created with funding from TWCF, Mindlight has been shown to be as effective as traditional talk therapy in helping young people manage and overcome anxiety symptoms.

Challenges Innovations Face 
There's a gap between "research and practice and policy and culture," says Serazin. A major hurdle is the lack of resources in the transition from research to practical application. While academic labs create pilot interventions, financing and scaling these for workplaces, homes, or classrooms are often difficult, given unclear paths and regulatory risks. "Philanthropy, I would argue, has an obligation to step in," says Serazin.

Another potential challenge Serazin sees is with democracy and misinformation. "Chatbot technology will only further entrench large interests, government or commercial interests, rather than offer a kind of democratization tool," he says. New artificial intelligence systems are creating content at an unprecedentedly rapid rate and this content is often almost indistinguishable from human-generated outputs. "So there are some huge things to worry about in the short term," says Serazin, "but if we get through those things, I'm a big believer in technologies for knowledge production, for science, for individuals."

Polarization is another threat to flourishing, that left unexamined, may only be exacerbated by advances in generative AI. Polarization, Serazin explains, happens when there are "entrenched positions on the different sides of an issue, and new information or even time does not resolve those differences." The foundation has a number of active projects looking at the mechanisms that drive polarization at a fundamental level. "We're not interested in a particular topic, but instead: what are the underlying mechanisms? Is it trust? Is it identity? Is it the dynamics of how people communicate?" explains Serazin. It's "hugely important to continue to grapple with the threats of artificial intelligence for humanity."

Adversarial Collaboration
Serazin explains a little about adversarial collaboration, a mechanism to test opposing scientific theories head to head with each other. This approach encourages progress, Serazin says, because there's "iterative confrontation with reality that causes you to change your own theories about how the world works." The conventional standard within the research community "was to have scientists working on different theories all go off and do their own thing. This only allows for incremental advances." With adversarial collaboration, he explains, "adversaries design a set of experiments which differentiate between two theories — a common set of experiments that are repeated by independent parties in multiple labs around the world. So that Team A is not doing the experiments for Team A, and Team B is not doing experiments of Team B. There's actually a third party that is doing experiments, and then all the results get pulled together. The idea is that this process will cause theories to evolve more rapidly, it'll cause revisions to theories, because both groups agreed in advance to the experiments."

Forgiveness as a Tool for Human Flourishing
To flourish encompasses being to be able to "navigate imperfection and trauma and hurt and the bad things that happen in people's lives and move past that," shares Serazin. Forgiveness is a tool that we have to convert painful experiences into positive experiences. TWCF was a funder of the world's largest forgiveness intervention trial, in five countries. In April 2023, results from the trial were released, finding individuals who received the intervention saw an increased ability and disposition to forgive, a reduction in depression and anxiety symptoms, and an increase in flourishing.

Tune into the podcast to hear more details and to find out what's next for the foundation.

Read the transcript from the interview conducted by journalist Richard Sergay, presented by podcast producer, host, and writer, Tavia Gilbert.

Built upon the award-winning video series of the same name, Templeton World Charity Foundation’s “Stories of Impact” podcast features stories of new scientific research on human flourishing that translate discoveries into practical tools. Bringing a mix of curiosity, compassion, and creativity, journalist Richard Sergay and producer Tavia Gilbert shine a spotlight on the human impact at the heart of cutting-edge social and scientific research projects supported by TWCF.