By Tom Crompton, Co-founder, Common Cause Foundation

Common Cause Foundation has long highlighted the ways in which movements for social and environmental change often rehearse and embed a neoliberal worldview. This may be deliberate (a strategy to assimilate responses to multiple forms of crisis within neoliberal frameworks) or it may be inadvertent (many campaigns assume that the best way to build support for change will be by highlighting opportunities for ‘wealth creation’). But regardless of what drives such approaches, the effect is the same: to further perpetuate a neoliberal mindset that can only drive us ever further into crisis.

We have built our critique of this approach on a body of social science. But this reliance on science leaves us in doubt. Might it be that, in building our case on science, we are ourselves further embedding another framework (that is, ‘science as a way of knowing the world’) which proves itself, over and over, to be destructive?

Perhaps it is hazardous – if not downright counterproductive – to build attempts to support social change by centring appeals to scientific knowledge (in a way that is analogous to the perils we highlight of centring wealth creation as motivation for expressions of social or environmental concern)?

I don’t mean by this that the products of science (for example, evidence-based policymaking in education, or nuclear bombs) are problematic. While many are, others are life-affirming. Rather I mean that, much as with a neoliberal worldview, it seems that there is something inherent about thinking within a scientific perspective that drives us ever further into crisis.

In the case of science, this anxiety stems from an understanding that scientific method emerged by driving a wedge between reason and emotion, minds and bodies, humans and animals. This separation enabled those committed to objectification of the world (overwhelmingly white heterosexual men) to extricate themselves from nature and stand above it – above nonhuman animals, women, people of colour, queer people, indigenous people.

Arguably, this separation – enabled and consolidated by science as a way of knowing – led to the flourishing of patriarchy, white supremacy, human exceptionalism, colonialism, and heteronormativity. It led – in the language of the science of values – to the valorisation of extrinsic values such as wealth, authority, social power and intelligence. And this separation also suppressed intrinsic values of social justice, equality, unity with nature and a world at peace – those very values, in other words, that Common Cause seeks to promote through its appeal to social science.

Put differently, the dilemma might be stated like this: how can we begin to repair some of the schisms that science has generated, and continues to embed, while also being careful not to cut ourselves adrift from reason?

In his remarkable book Wild Experiment: Feeling Science and Secularism after Darwin, Donovan O. Schaefer helps to chart a way through this dilemma. But he requires us to think differently about the way that we think. He argues that science doesn’t develop through the clinical exercise of reason. It is deeply committed to feeling.

“The conventional wisdom,” Schaefer writes, “is that thinking and feeling are opposites. Be reasonable, we’re told. Don’t be ruled by your emotions.” But what might it mean “to challenge the ambient belief that feeling and thinking are separate”? Perhaps knowledge making is entangled in feeling? In fact, perhaps it isn’t just entangled in it, but, as Schaefer contests, “encompassed by it”?

Our reluctance to accept that reason and emotion might be inseparable, Schaefer argues, arises because of the persistent conceit that human animals are qualitatively different to non-human animals. But a better understanding of how we come to know things – and the limitations of this knowledge – would require us to reject claims that “there is a wall of separation between humans and animals, minds and bodies, thinking and feeling”. It might also lead to a more compassionate world.

Schaefer charts the origins of an understanding of the human brain which enshrines the reason/emotion divide in brain structure. According to this understanding (which has proven difficult to dislodge in the popular imagination, though it has been long abandoned by psychologists) emotions originate in the limbic system, shared across mammalian species. It further asserts that, in humans alone, part of the brain called the neomammalian formation lies above (in both anatomical and metaphorical terms) the limbic system. This is the site of reason. Accordingly, the human task “was to use the neomammalian brain to dominate the… emotional structures” and our animal origins.

The attractiveness of this notion (the feeling it creates) perhaps explains why this understanding of brain structure has proven so persistent in popular understanding, despite compelling evidence that it is simply wrong. Today, Schaefer suggests, no brain areas are described as specifically linked to emotion or to reason. There is no such thing as thought absent of emotion – indeed “the brain’s operating system is affect”.

So, he writes, “A racist society will tend to produce racist science not just because of bad data but because the coordinates of interpretation of that data – of what feels true – are disfigured.

Knowledge-making, then, is the process of navigating the tension between two poles: that of reason and that of emotion. “Changing our minds means changing how we feel.”

According to this understanding, the “feeling of thinking is what guides us to good knowledge… It strengthens knowledge claims rather than undermining them.” Here Schaefer introduces the idea of what he calls click: a felt sense that attends of our feeling of relief at the evaporation of “dissonance, frustration, and discomfort when information grates or jars with what we think we know”.

Click is the feeling that we have when we say that “Ah yes, things have clicked into place for me”. It’s a crucial part of knowledge-making, but it also needs checks and balances. Because without those checks it becomes wildly inflated and finds connection everywhere. (Here Schaefer quotes the historian Richard Hofstadter: “The paranoid mind is far more coherent than the real world.”)

Schaefer reflects on the attractiveness of conspiracy theories in this light.  Conspiracy theory, he writes, is “a mutation of the scientific method that operates by deleting the checks and balances of the sense of science”. It thrives on the pleasure we get from an overgrown addiction to click, that finds it everywhere.  Under this state of suggestibility, “knowledge production spirals up into an over-the-top tapestry of correlations, everything clicking with everything else… It feels so good it has to be true.” He likens it to a “cigarette with the filter snipped off, maxing out the hit you get from studying the world, leaving you dizzy.” (I can identify with this viscerally – after once sitting on a hillside for four days and nights as part of a “vision fast”, I returned to a world of deep synchronicity, where everything hummed with significance and meaning and I felt as though I teetered on the brink of madness. I was disoriented by unconstrained click.)

What we need – and what my reading of queer theory, feminist theory and indigenous thinkers all point towards – is to think nondualistically: that is, to dismantle barriers between mind and body, thought and act, emotion and reason.

Perhaps one place to start this process is to own the emotion that inescapably shapes our reason. In our desperate and ultimately futile pursuit of “dispassionate” knowledge, we try hopelessly to sustain the fiction that we can separate reason from emotion, but simply end up alienating ourselves from the world that we want to heal.

Featured Image: Héctor Expósito Rodriguez for ArtistsForClimate.org