Emotions enrich our experiences and give us important information about ourselves. Our experience of emotions is the perception of brain-states by the brain itself. Emotions originally served the function of producing a particular behavior, while simultaneously preparing the body for it. They are typically caused by certain stimuli the brain has learned (or in some cases is born) to associate with the need for a particular behavior. But with the added stimuli of rational cognition, emotions can have very complex causes and content.
Emotions are a form of appraisal, and thus can be mistaken. The emotion your brain generates, in response to a certain stimulus, is an indication of the brain’s “opinion” about what it perceives is going on. This is an “evaluative” response, because this “opinion” relates to what our attitude or response to something should be, and will vary in intensity or degree. Emotions can err in two different ways: (1) if a stimulus is incorrectly perceived or interpreted; and (2) if a stimulus is incorrectly evaluated.
A stimulus can be an event (e.g. loud noise); a circumstance (e.g. being shot at); or a thought (e.g. realizing you are going to die). If we incorrectly interpret a loud noise as being shot at, we may experience fear – the evaluation that a circumstance is dangerous – but fear on this occasion would be a false indicator of danger. All emotions can be mistaken this way. For example, you might love someone because you have false beliefs about them.
Even with entirely correct beliefs and perceptions, an evaluation can be incorrect when our evaluation criteria are incorrect. The brain’s mechanism for evaluating circumstances involves “values.” Fear indicates that something is valued as dangerous, and whether something is dangerous is an objective fact about the world, not our mere opinion of it. We can love someone for all the wrong reasons when our love-evaluator generates the emotion we call ‘love’ in response to real facts that are not worthy of it, while not generating those emotions in response to facts that are indicative of the appropriateness of love.
Initially, our brain’s criteria of evaluation for each emotional response are not based on conscious reasoning. It is partly inborn (reaction to raw stimuli like attractive faces), and partly learned through childhood by imitation, training, and trial and error. Parents play a crucial role in all three methods, hopefully by setting a good example, fairly and consistently distributing punishments and rewards, and exposing children to new and different experiences and challenges, guiding them through safely with attention to their need to learn rather than be told.
Our values are open to conscious molding in adulthood – but it’s not easy. It’s not simply rearranging thoughts or just choosing to have a particular value. To rearrange values requires a long-term effort. It can be accomplished, for example, through extensive contemplation. This is one reason why a self-examined life is important, for only then will your values become really yours, rather than just what you ended up with. This is the only way you can have values that are rational and wise, rather than products of chance, error, naivety or indoctrination. Values that are rationally organized according to trustworthy beliefs will always be superior, more frequently generating more reliable emotions. Since emotions can be incorrect, we need reason and reflection to assess the accuracy of our emotions and to decide whether we should act on them or not.
Since emotions are wired into us before and beneath our reasoning faculties, we cannot simply ‘will them away,’ even when we know they are wrong. Their effect on our cognition and our body will remain until we remove ourselves from the stimulus, or reprogram ourselves to evaluate the same circumstances differently. But our will is normally under rational control. So even under the influence of what we know are false emotions, we can act differently than our emotions suggest, so long as we maintain focused control over our behavior and maintain our attention to reason.
Carrier, R. (2005). Sense and Goodness Without God: A Defense of Metaphysical Naturalism. USA: AuthorHouse.