Cognition Feels

In his new book, Donovan Schaefer, Assistant Professor of Religious Studies, argues that there is no thinking without feeling.

Thursday, June 2, 2022

Katelyn Silva

Donovan Schaefer, Assistant Professor of Religious Studies

In pandemic times, the phrase “follow the science” has become commonplace, often uttered as though science is something wholly objective. Sayings like, “Facts don’t care about your feelings,” or, “We must solve this problem with reason, not emotion,” further suggest division between thinking and feeling.

Donovan Schaefer, Assistant Professor of Religious Studies, says this is the wrong approach. In his new book, Wild Experiment: Feeling Science and Secularism after Darwin, Schaefer posits that thinking and feeling are intertwined. The book explores the particular philosophical and historical tradition that created these “false” constructs and introduces the model of “cogency theory” to describe how cognition is felt.

Cogency theory understands knowledge production as a process in which thinking and feeling are one, and where knowledge production is often animated by pleasure. Schaefer writes in the book’s introduction that “math, science, history, philosophy, and all other forms of formalized knowledge-making are scaled-up versions of [a] micro-level delight in the subtle click of things coming together.”

“Scientists, historians, philosophers, scholars, and so on, feel the life of the mind,” says Schaefer. “They are energized by it and find joy within it. Their passion often drives their knowledge-making.” On the other hand, Schaefer says that the emotions inherent in thinking can also lead to faulty reasoning, which is why believing that thinking and feeling are separate, or creating knowledge without paying mind to emotions, can be dangerous business.

Wild Experiment: Feeling Science and Secularism after Darwin

“The way we work our way through a situation is always guided by feeling,” Schaefer says. “We are misleading ourselves to think otherwise. In fact, that's precisely how we disguise our own partial interests and perspectives, by saying that what we have is reason and what other people have is feeling.”

Schaefer explores this dynamic within the book through multiple examples, but is particularly interested in new atheism or secularism, and the ways in which atheistic thinkers use “reason” as proof that religion is false or outdated superstition, while ignoring how various atheist movements themselves are driven by an “emotional core.”

Cognitively ignoring that emotion is part of the thinking process, says Schaefer, in combination with the pleasure we get when our thoughts align with our feelings can lead to things like conspiracy theories, which Schaefer delves into in later chapters. He explains, “Conspiracy theory is a way of making the world intelligible in a way that is very exciting and pleasurable, and that's partly why conspiracy theory is so powerful and so dangerous. It’s very effective at strumming our intellectual emotions, at making us think about the world in a particular way by making us feel about the world in a particular way.”

For Schaefer, thinking is not just entangled with feeling, but impossible without it. Therefore, if we aren't aware of that symbiosis, we may misunderstand how we understand the world—leading to unfortunate outcomes like conspiracy theories.

Wild Experiment will be released on June 10, but Schaefer has already started his next book, which will apply theories on feelings to the politicization of monuments. “I want to bring perspective to how the landscape of monuments and memorials, the political sphere, and emotion are all a cat’s cradle where everything is connected.”