Free will cannot include willing an emotion to disappear

Recall in the introductory post that willing an emotion to disappear is not included in free will.  Why is that, and what is the relation between emotion and free will?  Do those who say that an emotion “made” them do something have an argument against free will?  In this post, the first of these questions will be addressed.

Emotions are self-evidently present in our awareness – in fact, they represent a large part of man’s conscious life.  Emotions are the means by which we experience an evaluation of the objects of perception.  A man is reading a news story.  Is the subject discussed (a new law, a recently opened play, a technological breakthrough) for his values or against them, or of no relation to them, and in what way?  Those differences in the evaluation would determine whether his emotional response is positive, negative or neutral.  If the new law discussed in the news story represents a cherished value to the man, he will feel elation.  If the law has no particular significance in the hierarchy of his values, he will experience no emotion.  If the law is opposed to his values, or he considers it nonsensical, he will have a strong negative emotion.  Both the positive or negative relation of the law to his values, and the importance to him of those values, determine the specific emotion and its strength.

For the same reason – the connection to his values – the story about the new law may generate a very strong emotion, whereas the story about the recently opened play may generate nothing but a yawn.   A single individual will therefore react very differently to different objects.   Further, the very same object will produce different emotions in persons with different values.   Another man may read the exact same news story about the law and experience boredom, skipping to the next story.  That second man might be excited about the opening of the new play because it’s plot is about a topic that he values highly.

These examples demonstrate  that the emotion is a consequence of a perception of some object and of one’s evaluation of it.  The key here is that it is a consequence.  Emotions are not primaries, but require these two antecedents.  The emotion is a consequence of the value-significance of each set of facts to each individual, a consequence of the entire mental context of the person who experiences it.

It is not hard to see, therefore, why man is not “free” to will an emotion to immediately disappear:  If it is a consequence of the object and the value, as long as both are present the emotion will be present.  To change the emotion requires a change in either the value(s) or the fact pattern (for example, the man excited about the opening of a new play might have his emotion diminished when he reads at the end of the story that the opening is in a distant city).  Absent one of these, an emotion cannot be willed to disappear, or even to be modified in its intensity (as in: “Don’t feel so sad…”).

The “fact pattern” as described in the previous example is really a combination of two steps: perception and identification. For example, the man reads the story about the new law – that is just a perception.  The meaning of the perception is: something I consider fundamentally important has just been enacted into law.  This occurs before any evaluation, and hence before the emotional response.  All of these steps – perception, identification, evaluation and emotional response – are conceptually separable, but normally some of the steps are automatized subconsciously, and not immediately differentiated in our awareness.  This automatized combination of several steps may make it difficult to untangle complex emotional responses.

Though an emotion cannot be willed away, it may dissolve due to a person’s analyzing the underlying premises and changing one or more of them.  This is common in stressful situations.  An athlete experiences high anxiety, but asks himself the source of the emotion.  He sees himself thinking “I’ll never win this event. The competitors are so strong.” He then reminds himself that he has trained for this event, and has every reason to expect a good outcome.  The emotion of anxiety that he’d experienced moments before, prior to analyzing and correcting his mistaken premise, is immediately resolved to a normal level of healthy stress.

In such cases as this, however, an emotion has not directly been willed away.  On the contrary, a conclusion has been changed, an idea rejected and replaced with another one – in the athlete’s case, a better one, one representing the truth.  In the new context, with the new premise leading to a new identification of the meaning of the situation, the emotion changes.

What has just been described is the correct approach to emotional change, as opposed to attempting to directly will the emotion away.

The primary historical advocacy of willing emotions to disappear is religion.  Consider the following from two of Christianity’s most admired men:  St. Francis, when he was tempted by sexual desire, would “plunge into a ditch full of snow, that he might both utterly subdue the foe within him, and might preserve his white robe of chastity from the fire of lust.” (St. Bonaventure’s account). Or St. Benedict, on an occasion when he was tempted by sexual desire, dealt with it this way, according to Gregory: “Seeing near at hand a thick growth of briars and nettles, he stripped off his habit and cast himself into the midst of them and plunged and tossed about until his whole body was lacerated. Thus, through those bodily wounds, he cured the wounds of his soul.”  When emotion was opposed to religious edicts, the heroes of Christianity simply attempted to emasculate the emotion.  Such counsels are not confined to past centuries.  A twentieth century theologian, Josemaria Escriva, is famous for this saying: “To defend his purity, Saint Francis of Assisi rolled in the snow, Saint Benedict threw himself into a thorn bush, and Saint Bernard plunged into an icy pond… You – what have you done?”

Even though the West has secularized since the Renaissance and such men are not universally revered as moral models, the West has never fully jettisoned their approach towards morality or their approach towards emotional conflict.  Men still retain many attitudes about how to be moral that are rooted in those earlier times.  With regard to emotions, it is not unusual even today for a parent troubled by a child’s fear or pain to counsel the child with phrases like “don’t be so afraid” or “cheer up.” Such advice cannot help but be interpreted by a vulnerable child as a suggestion to rid himself of the emotion, any way possible.

This mistaken approach to dealing with threatening emotions can lead to only one of two outcomes: 1) the emotion is apparently willed away, though in fact it is simply submerged so one is not aware of it consciously.  In such cases, the emotion is not actually eliminated because its antecedents are still present, though forced into the subconscious.  The emotion often re-emerges at some future time. Or 2) the emotion continues despite the attempt to will it away (as happens in the case of deep-seated fears such as phobias). The emotion remains due to a person’s not analyzing and eliminating the subconscious premises and values that gave rise to it.

The proper approach is, first, to reject the idea that free will includes omnipotent power over emotions.  There is ample evidence to reject that idea, and every reason to avoid the harmful effects of adopting such a policy.  Second, in trying to change a destructive emotion, one should analyze the ideas and values underlying the emotion, and correct mistaken ones.  Trying to suppress a consequence cannot work.  And living with an intolerable consequence (such as unanalyzed emotional conflict) cannot be justified when it can be corrected and lead to emotional harmony.  As the example of the athlete in competition illustrates, such harmony is achievable if one uses the correct method.

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