Feeling Science and Secularism After Darwin
- ISBN: 9781478018254
- Published By: Duke University Press
- Published: June 2022
Precognitive feeling has long been associated with religion, and more recently has been thoroughly examined by Donovan Schaefer in his Religious Affects (Duke University Press, 2015). This focus on affect, however, is usually premised on an artificial dualism of feeling (religious) and reason (secular). In Wild Experiment: Feeling Science and Secularism After Darwin, Schaefer responds to this tendency, bridging the dualism from the side of affect to that of the secular and the (purportedly) rational. As he suggestively asks, “what would it mean for secularism today to think of scientific rationality not as neutral calculation, but as made of feeling?” (167). The first half of the book discusses Schaefer’s “cogency theory,” or the idea that thinking and feeling are one. Cogency theory understands knowledge as motivated by a desire to “get things right,” or the pleasure tied to what Schaefer calls “click,” as when things click into place. This is what Schaefer calls the “small” argument of the book: that thinking is as much about affect as it is about cognition. The “big” argument is that our new understanding of cognition as feeling also affords us a theory of error, whereby racialized and conspiratorial thought can be explained by reference to their affect-oriented cogency. Even though they are wrong, it just “feels right” for them to be true, and this is what sometimes fools even otherwise critical thinkers into pursuing problematic theories and affiliations.
In the first chapter, Schaefer considers the history of the philosophy of science in the work of David Hume, Friedrich Nietzsche, and William James, all writing well before the groundbreaking critiques of positivism made by Michael Polanyi and Thomas Kuhn. In each of these philosophers, though with varying degrees of success, science is explained as a sort of passion that requires a psychological rendering. Schaefer then identifies conspiracy theories as a hypertrophization of certain passions of science, grounded in the more basic pleasure of having things “click.” This history is continued in chapter 2, which shows how the psychology of knowledge pursued by Silvan Tomkins lays the groundwork for the basic desire behind knowledge regimes. Chapter 3 interrogates the secular’s conceit of non-feeling neutrality, identifying how disenchantment is not a process of losing feeling, but rather a new construction of feeling alongside the religious. An important part of this investigation is Schaefer’s identification of racialized reasoning and conspiratorial thinking that are present even in purportedly scientific thought. Racialization and conspiracism are widespread because they “click” for us just like science done well, meaning that they are present in secular and scientific settings in a way that cogency theory, but not rationalistic theories of science, can readily explain.
Chapter 4 reviews the neuroscience literature from the late 20th century that overcame the “triune brain” theory, which separated affective from cognitive regions of brain activity. This more recent research established that emotion and cognition are in fact intertwined aspects of human processing, with emotional response of pleasure and recognition effecting so-called cognitive processes. These conclusions align with cogency theory’s approach to understanding thinking as feeling and the “click” as foundational for truth-oriented cognition.
While the first half of the book establishes cogency theory, the second half offers case studies of cogency in action and fulfills Schaefer’s goal of correcting a previous misreading of his work in religious studies by turning his gaze on secularism and science studies. Schaefer is clear that all thought and conceptualization is about feeling, not just thought that occurs in those spheres that can be cordoned off as “religious.” If affect theory can critique idealistic and theologizing conceptions of religious practice, then, it can surely do the same for similar conceptions of science and secularism.
The most touching chapter from this group is the history of Charles Darwin’s collaboration with Thomas Huxley. Here several themes converge in a case study that highlights the emotional nature of two quite different scientific minds at work, with Schaefer telling an origin story for understanding our feeling for science as an evolving biological trait. By contrast Schaefer’s chapters on the participants of the Scopes Trial and the New Atheists read more as an investigation and a warning of how scientific feeling can play out in public controversy. The scientific and secular sentiments of these writers and public figures are sometimes buried by journalism and history, sometimes by how they narrate their own relationship with religion and science. Schaefer demonstrates how racialized passions are in play even here.
Schaefer convincingly argues for the fact that science and secularism “feel.” My main question after finishing this book is (to adapt the question of Talal Asad): “Is critique affective?” Cogency theory can explain at least part of what motivates a person to adopt a conspiracy theory, but not that a conspiracy theory is any different than normal science. In fact, these two programs function in much the same way according to cogency theory, which is concerned with affect rather than reasons or conceptual knowledge.
The sort of critical stance that is able to distinguish racism or conspiracism as such in the first place is not exactly rejected by Schaefer, but the fact that cogency theory is not meant to tell us why racialized reason or conspiracy theorizing is erroneous (or even different from the sort of science we should do) seems to indicate that reason is not entirely grounded in affect. We should heed Schaefer’s own critique of the myth of a uniquely human and non-evolutionary pure reason, but we should heed his critique only because reason itself is always liable to pressures from affect in its animal use, not because reason and rational critique are themselves produced by, or a function of, affect.
Evan F. Kuehn is assistant professor of information literacy at North Park University in Chicago, Illinois, USA.Evan KuehnDate Of Review:June 5, 2023