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Reflections on the meaning of life and other puzzles, Part IV Truth and Reality: Universally understood or emotionally altered perceptions?

By Charlotte B. Cerminaro
web posted February 24, 2020

Having just uprooted our family from Seattle where we lived for nearly 25 years I'm willing to admit that how I'm feeling, emotionally and physically, can affect how I interpret my environment. Being overwhelmed, exhausted, chronically stressed or injured and sick, can color our opinion of events, people, places---but can these variables, including strong emotions---be put in subjection to a moment of disciplined reason and a basic understanding of human nature? Having a terrible day, being angry with someone, these are part of the human condition and it is human nature to react to a strong feeling by turning it on the nearest and/or easiest target, whether or not this target is in any way responsible for, or able to change, our state of mind. More to the point, a person's past experiences may predispose them to react in a negative way, to any perceived slight or stereotyped appearance or actions. Obviously such things alter perception. But if no such slight has actually occurred: No crime, no unkindness or discrimination, are we not ultimately responsible for our opinions and behavior, on a case-by-case basis?

Having politicians and politics once again at the forefront because election cycles and the media make them ubiquitous, the concepts of truth and reality weigh heavily on my conscience. I hear a lot of people voice legitimate complaints. Many of the problems they speak of are problems with which I can identify, or at the very least, their issues are clearly being compounded by policies that have absolutely no known benefit. Then the counterargument comes---a group of people even more vociferous, angry, with just as many complaints---but instead of policies and laws, and the politicians who are promoting them, a string of ad hominem attacks, strawman arguments and personal grievances, having nothing to do with government or elections, are screamed at any microphone and camera in proximity. The screaming is often accompanied by anecdotes most personal, lifestyle choices and baseless accusations that cannot be proved or disproved and third-hand accounts of remarks supposedly made 20 years ago during privileged conversations, that should therefore render a person's entire life (and political career) null and void.

It's abundantly clear that these screaming dissenters have grievances. They are angry and they want justice. They want the truth to be heard. But what truth? That someone hurt them? Someone hurt their feelings? They are being held back from personal excellence by someone? By one (or all) of the candidates of a certain gender, or race, or perhaps only candidates identifying as capitalists? When we're angry is one of the most difficult times to admit that our perception might be affected by our emotions or experiences. This, of course, begs the question: If someone is unable to see anything beyond their feelings, does this mean their feelings are their truth? Should this in any way affect how we think? Are we to give equal weight to the subjective feelings of a thousand people, as we would to an objective truth that stands outside ourselves and our feelings? When I understand something to be absolutely true, common sense tells me to follow the truth even if it directly contradicts my feelings. Even if it's of no personal benefit, or worse, if I actually stand to lose by holding to the truth.

So this conundrum is more than just an abstract idea. When Albert Einstein was asked how we can know if something is true he said, "Truth is that which conforms to reality." If reality is seen and confirmed by empirical evidence, deductive reasoning and proven, repeatable occurrences, can we equate common sense, direct observation and analytical thinking with truth? If this is the case, what purpose do emotions have in human experience? Are our emotions designed to corroborate what we know to be true, if we are emotionally healthy? Or are they something entirely different? Are they actually supposed to inform us of that which is unseen and intangible, but still an essential part of our existence? And more importantly, are we to ideally follow reason and common sense, with emotions being an aid to understanding the full spectrum of communication and empathy? These are difficult questions that have plagued great thinkers and writers for many centuries. Pascal, Tolstoy and Kierkegaard devoted volumes of work to such ideas and if they had simple answers, we would not have a pandemic of disparate thinking. Answers will not be found by seeking our own counsel or appointing a bigger government; but the search for truth is far too important to delegate the responsibility to others. A true paradox that has vexed scientists, philosophers, theologians and the wisest of the wise, since the beginning of time.ESR

Charlotte B. Cerminaro is a Juilliard-trained classical musician who, in addition to being a studio and orchestral musician, enjoys writing. © 2020

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