Perspectives on the Theme

Do Emotions Shape the World? Perspectives from Science and Theology


It seems that many decisions in life are based on emotions rather than on abstract intellectual activity. This applies to individual lives as well as to the world wide effects of decisions in politics and economics.

The stock market reacts to the emotions of investors. Nervous investors make for a nervous market which makes for scared people who act irrationally, which makes for people who lose jobs and homes.

The success of brands relies on emotional attraction more than on technical facts – as marketing specialists put it: “We don’t market a product, we are selling a life-style.”  Climate activists who focus on the necessity of massive changes in lifestyle realize that naked facts alone will not do the job. Without a successful appeal to appropriate parts of the emotional scale (and actively trying to switch off others!), not much will change.

Anthropology has long been indecisive on the matter. Sometimes emotions are taken to be the truest revelation of what a person is: Follow your emotions and your true self will show up. The underlying assumption may be that emotions are more original and hence more honest than secondary thinking: a variation of the “back to nature” and “the noble wild” theme. On other occasions, the truest self is supposed to show up precisely when you defy your emotional life and force yourself to be rational. That line of reasoning may be driven by the assumption that human rationality is the surest sign of human uniqueness, whereas emotionality binds us to the animal kingdom.

What are the reasons for the understanding of emotion and intellect as opposites? Is “being guided by emotions” really the contrary of “being logical” and vice versa? Both science and theology may tell us that the reasons for a dualistic understanding are not that good after all. Nevertheless, the dualistic construction is part of many worldviews. Weren’t we brought up with the image of the scientist in his sober white lab coat, safely dwelling in the world of reason, facts and empirical truth? With its counterpart in the image of the religious professional in fancy vestments, digging into the world of emotions while balancing between faith and superstition?

So, let´s ask some of the questions that need to be asked today:

  • What is emotion?
  • What do we know about the biochemistry of emotions and the evolutionary record of emotions?
  • How has our understanding of emotions changed over time?
  • What is the role of emotions in religious experience?
  • What is the role of emotion in scientific research?
  • How should we describe emotions, rationality, subjectivity and objectivity in light of the best knowledge in science and theology?
  • In the wake of “Descartes Error” (Antonio Damasio), how do we re-conceptualize the understanding, pursuit and communication of science?
  • If “religions provide a cultural integrity, a spiritual depth and moral force which secular approaches lack” (Mary Evelyn Tucker), how does theology as the critical and self-critical reflection on the content and effects of religious traditions feed this cultural, spiritual and moral capital into the economy of global challenges?
  • How does advanced understanding of emotions contribute to the dialogue between science and theology?

These are just some of the questions that may be explored in papers, discussions and plenary lectures.