To understand emotions it is necessary to know what we think, know what we feel, and to know the difference. PLUS to understand the cause and effect relationship between the two. For many people feelings are an important part of any consideration. Emotions are implicitly considered a means of guidance in our lives, a tool for gaining knowledge of reality. But are they? It is popular to feel over and above thinking. But does this really serve us? Emotions are treated as primaries, they just are. We can’t explain them or understand them. We just have to deal with them. But is this really true?
Emotions within in the Matrix
The neurologist and father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud (1856 – 1939), originated this idea. He considered emotions as primaries, as unknowable and mysterious, springing forth from what he called the ‘Id’. He held that our emotions and motivations were unfathomable and could not be rationally explained. He considered the thinking mind to be the servant of the desires, and the subconscious mind as being virtually an independent entity – although containing all of our previous conclusions, thoughts and experiences. He said that we are born with these unfathomable desires and motivations that are independent of our experience or conscious thought.
He was not alone in shaping what has become a commonly accepted belief. English philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588 – 1679) considered the purpose of thought to be the achievement of desires. And David Hume (1711 – 1776) wrote that “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.” Outside the Matrix, there is another way to look at our emotions.
The rational view of emotions
Last century Ayn Rand and Nathaniel Branden offered an alternative view. I summarise it here and suggest that it makes far more sense than the conventional belief. It offers us empowering knowledge and essential insight to understand our selves and human behaviour in general. But most importantly it offers us crucial knowledge so that we can live happy and effective lives.
Nathaniel Branden said that there is a causal relationship between thoughts and emotions – one is the cause and the other is the effect. If we understand which is cause and which is effect our consciousness can operate in harmony and we can enjoy self-confidence, self-esteem, mental health, fulfillment and happiness. Emotions function as feedback in realising our values. However if we get it back to front and treat the cause as the effect and the effect as the cause (as most people do) we avail ourselves to internal chaos, guilt, self-doubt, neurosis and suffering.
Definition: An emotion is the psychosomatic form in which man experiences the estimates of his relationship of things to himself. [Psychosomatic = relating to the interaction between mind and body]
What are values?
Rand defines a value as ‘that which we act to gain or keep’. Values are things that we need to produce such as food and clothing and homes. But they are also circumstances we need to create, living conditions, and relationships. Values include conditions of existence, such clean water, clean air and a warm dry place to sleep and freedom to act in accordance with our choices.
According to Rand, an emotion is a response to our values. It is an automatic psychological result of our value judgments with both and physical and a mental component. She adds that an emotion is the Psychosomatic form in which we experience our estimate of the harmful or beneficial relationship of some aspect of reality to ourselves.
It is our thinking that determines our values. However, in the absence of thinking we accept the values of those around us (or society at large) by osmosis – we just absorb them unconsciously. But it is important to understand that not all of our values are held and identified in verbal form. Also, we can hold many contradictory and self-defeating values. Our values can be held consciously or unconsciously, they can be rational and they can be irrational.
The differences in our values come from the differences in our basic premises, our view of our selves, other men and existence. In other words our mental operating system or, our philosophy.
But whatever values we hold, it is our understanding of what is for or against us, what threatens or what supports our values, that determines what we will love and what we will fear. Whether it is our car, our life, our children or our freedom that we value, we will love that which supports those values and we will fear that which threatens those values.
We feel love when we perceive that which represents or supports our values. As a consequence, we desire those things that support our values. And if that desire to achieve or posses those values is fulfilled then we feel happiness.
We perceive that which supports our values – We like or we love (positive emotion)
As a consequence we desire
Fulfillment of those desire = Happiness
Conversely, we feel fear when we perceive things that threaten or undermine our values, and as a consequence, we feel hatred. If our values are destroyed we experience suffering.
We perceive something threatening our values – We feel fear (negative emotion)
As a consequence we feel hatred
The destruction of our values = Suffering
Nathaniel Branden said, “An emotion is a response to some aspect of existence, to an object or event perceived in reality or in ones consciousness. You can love someone in front of you and you can think of them and feel love. You can experience fear and pain in response to injury or in anticipation of pain or injury. An emotion is a reaction to a perception, but the response is not determined merely by the object or event perceived, it is determined by one’s evaluation of that object or event.”
For example, 3 men may encounter a crook; the first sees how the man has betrayed his status as a human being and feels contempt, the second wonders how he can be safe in a world full of such people and feels fear. The third man may secretly envy the crooks success and feel a sneaking admiration. All three men perceived the same ‘object’.
Emotions are involuntary estimates
The particular emotion we feel in a given situation is determined by our appraisal of the significance of what we perceive. An emotional response is always the reflection and product of an estimate. An estimate is the product of an individual’s values, as the individual understands them to apply to a particular situation.
Imagine the company you work for is struggling in a recession. You have no savings. You need your job. Many things depend upon it and the income it provides. You hear that people are being laid off and that your boss wants to speak with you in his office at 3 O’clock. Your emotional response would be fear and anxiety. You don’t want to loose your job, you value it and everything it makes possible. But when you see your boss he says, “John, you are a good worker and I am impressed with your productivity. I am going to give you a promotion and a raise.” Your emotions would change in an instant in response to your perception of the situation and its implications for your values. You would now feel relief and joyful at this new situation.
Emotions are immediate
An emotion is involuntary, it follows an estimate automatically as an immediate consequence. From all of our past experiences, identifications and conclusions, our mind is set to register certain kinds of estimates in the face of certain kinds of situations without requiring the initiation of a new conscious process of thought. But because emotions happen so fast we fail to grasp that their source is our mind and our value premises.
According to Branden the process of automatic appraisal is made possible by the minds accumulated premises that function as an integrated unit, and sum up immediate involuntary estimates, until or unless a new thought intervenes to revoke the order in answer to the minds recognition that it’s old thinking is not sufficient to evaluate that which now confronts it.
Suppose a man loves his wife. He doesn’t need to consciously consider her virtues to feel this love, his appreciation of her is stored away and the response to her is automatic. But then he discovers that she has cheated on him, and his emotional response to her changes in an instant. He now feels anger, he feels betrayed, he may feel hatred towards her. His relationship with her that he valued so highly has been destroyed. If he had heard about someone else’s partners betrayal he would not have felt the same because it would not have been his values that were affected.
Controlling our emotions (?)
Emotions cannot be directly controlled but they can be indirectly controlled. The implication of this is extremely empowering. We don’t need to bash our heads against a brick wall in futility, effectively ‘ordering ourselves’ to not feel one emotion and to feel another. An estimate or evaluation can be revoked and an emotional response can be changed, but only by a new process of thought.
Branden notes that it is our capacity to hold contradictory values and thus to make contradictory estimates, that permits us to feel contradictory or ambivalent emotions such as, to fear what we desire, to feel guilt over our pleasure, to resent that which we love. It is still from our values that every emotion proceeds.
Also, it is our capacity to evade our contradictions and refuse to identify our values, that permits us to complain that we possess feelings and desires for which we cannot account and to cry that the source of our feelings is not our mind, its our instincts, our primitive urges, our archaic drives… just as centuries ago men sought to explain those impulses that they could not understand by believing men were possessed by demons.
Evasion means emotions control us
Branden goes on to say…
“Torn by an un-confessed guilt over the emotions they believe they shouldn’t experience but do, and over the emotions they believe they should experience but don’t, the majority of men evade the causes and seek to command their feelings in and out of existence by arbitrary injunction. They decide that it is desirable to feel a certain emotion and the order themselves to feel it. They decide a certain other emotion is undesirable and they order themselves not to feel it! And, since emotions do not obey orders of that kind such men fail and then complain that emotions are impervious to reason.”
Emotions and happiness
Most of us don’t try to deal with our contradictory feelings and resolve them, we simply ignore them, we evade the issue. It is a combination of lack of knowledge and lack of inclination. We don’t generally seek to understand possibly because of this widely held assumption in the Matrix that we cannot understand them. But we can. With the inclination and with a rational understanding of the cause and effect nature of emotions we can resolve all of our contradictory feeling and greatly enhance our understanding of our selves. I suggest that this is a necessary prerequisite to the achievement of happiness.
The problem is that either not knowing or the refusal to recognise the source of our emotions does not set us free from their consequences. It leaves us at their mercy and driven by forces we do not understand. Which in turn means we are powerless to change them and control them.
Understanding that we can choose our values consciously, and make sure they are rational by thinking through all our presumptions, means our emotions become useful guidance towards realising those values. It is very helpful to make a list of what is important to us by writing down everything we can think of that matter to us. If we make our values explicit in this way we can then see how rational or irrational they are.
If we look closely at our emotions we can discover ideas we have held unconsciously, values we have chosen or adopted without verbal identification, concepts and ideas we have accepted as true without thought, and even subconscious beliefs we hold that are opposed to our conscious convictions!
This objectivist interpretation of emotions suggested by Ayn Rand and Nathaniel Branden makes sense of what otherwise remains meaningless. It shows us that if we are troubled by emotional conflicts we can resolve them by resolving the intellectual conflicts from which they originate.
Our minds and our emotions need not work against each other as the conventional view in the Matrix dictates. Understanding how our conscious thought can determine our values, and in turn how our values determine our emotional responses, is a key step towards living more consciously and achieving happiness.
Emotions are no substitute for thinking
What we feel, desire and enjoy all stem from our values. Our values may be rational or irrational, they may correlate with reality or be contrary to it, and they may be healthy or insane. Values can be the result of conscious choice or the product of evasions and repressions. They may be the result of uncritical acceptance of beliefs instilled in childhood or from society around us. They may even be a result of blind whim in the moment.
But the most important thing for us to know is this: What we feel about any fact, issue or circumstance has nothing to do with our judgment of whether it is true or false, right or wrong. What we feel proves nothing about the reality that confronts us. It proves only that we hold certain premises.
As Ayn Rand said, “Emotions are not tools of cognition. It is not by means of his feelings that man perceives reality.”
Nathaniel Branden summed it up well with this… “Emotions are the means of experiencing the enjoyment of life – but only for those who do not substitute their emotions for the use of their mind! There need not be and there should not be any tragic dichotomy between reason and emotions.”
The trick is to know what we think, and to know what we feel, and to know the difference.
This post was inspired by and gives credit to lectures by Nathaniel Branden back in the 1960’s as part of a series on the basic principles of objectivism – the philosophy of Ayn Rand.
I sincerely hope that this information helps you with a greater insight into your life experience.
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