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Harald Jezek

Owner, Nuada beauty+wellness

TEDCRED 50+

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What is reality ?

Did you ever think about what it is that makes reality real ?
How is our reality created ? Isn't it the perceptions our brain creates based on our sensory inputs ?
But what if we lack a sense ? How does reality change for somebody who cannot hear or see ?
Or take it even a step further, assume you are deprived of all your senses, What would reality mean in such a case ?
And last but not least, let's assume you are born without any senses. What would that mean to your reality ?
So what is reality and what are we as part of this reality ?

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Closing Statement from Harald Jezek

Thanks everybody for participating in this conversation.
After 900+ comments did we solve the question of what reality actually is ? Probably not, however it was a good exercise in contemplating what it actually means when we say this or this is "real".
What most of us agreed upon is that there are different aspects to reality.

One is the reality we deal with on a daily basis and which we share to a large degree. For example we agree upon common things, such as when we see a car we all agree it's a car, a tree is a tree and a house if a house.
Although we know that this reality is created by our mind based on sensory inputs which is not only incomplete but often also faulty, it still is "real" because we share the same benchmarking (same sensory inputs, generally same mechanism how our brain interprets those sensory inputs.

Beside this shared reality we all have our own reality. This can be something simple like the perception of a taste, odor or a color.
Although we might agree that a given color is read or an odor is that of a pine, we never can know how another person actually perceives this sensory input.
Individual reality also becomes visible in our beliefs. For a religious person the existence of a God is a fact and hence part of reality while for an atheist reality is free of such a God.
Differences in this aspect of reality can also be observed in how different people get different perceptions of the same situation.

Last but not least there must be an underlying objective reality which includes the laws of nature (whether those are the ones we believe are valid today or perhaps something even deeper which we don't have discovered yet) and which exists regardless of us being here to contemplate it and regardless of our beliefs.

Next time we insist something is real, let's think whether it's real for me, for all(most) of us or real in an absolute sense.

To finish with Albert Einstein:
"“Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.”

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    Nov 3 2013: Reality is commonly understood by "what exists" or the cosmos more specifically... (or you could check wikipedia for an elaborate introduction).
    Most evidence points that there is only one reality, and that each human (and many living beings) has an image of it -perceived through our senses-. A representation of our direct reality (let's say earth). We (humanity) have discovered much more about reality than we can directly perceive, and our best descriptions come from scientific inquiry.

    If you are not receiving sensory input, you start hallucinating (or dreaming during your sleep).

    If you wouldn't have any senses, you would not survive. Life needs external information to anticipate danger in order to avoid it (think this in evolutionary perspective, or in primitive forms in 'life games').

    Reality is not created, or at least, not as far as we know. There seems no need to assume a creator. We are unsure what happened around what we call 'the big bang'.
    For further understanding of reality on a particle level: check physics. For more about our planet: check all sciences (including sociology and psychology).

    I think you should not mix reality with what we humans believe reality is (our mental representation). Thinking that we only have a representation (of reality) implies reality is relative is wrong. Precisely because there is a reality, we can have an (inaccurate) perception of it.

    [edit: this talk is somewhat apt: http://www.ted.com/talks/devdutt_pattanaik.html]
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      Nov 3 2013: Morals, ...any emotion, creative ideas, freedom, liberty, justice, slavery...

      Anything people would die for is not reality?

      Chris, you and I live in two different realities. You create yours and I create mine as far as you and I know it..

      Agree to disagree. :)
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        Nov 3 2013: This is an interesting point, though I wouldn't agree absolutely with your 'Anything people would die for' commect. The first thing people would die for (or without) is food, water, air - all elements of physical reality.

        But certainly, there are many things that are important to us - emotion, thoughts, music, religion to name just a few - that are not part of physical reality. Yet it feels very uncomfortable to therefore state that they are not real.
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        Nov 3 2013: all you mention is clearly part of our reality... ( I wonder how you infer that I would claim the opposite)

        An active brain is capable of producing those... like electricity and a television can produce moving images (well, a set of images that seem to move). You label certain patterns as those emotions... and the experience of the living creature is really felt and value attached to it.

        Liberty, justice, slavery,... exists in a social context, where you label patterns of human behavior.

        Your perception of reality is clearly different than my perception of it. Although we are able to communicate on a shared medium which seems to exist for both of us. I assume this is a part of reality that is not different from you or me or an elephant in the Savannah.

        Your perception of planet earth is different from mine, but I am quite confident it is round and that we have oceans and continents and people living on it and dividing with borders they agree upon (more or less) and call it a country. I am quite confident that an aspirin works as I learned but for some it is more harmful than beneficial and the reasons for that are also the same for any observer.
        Assuming different realities would imply all those things could be different for any observer... I have not met people who are unaffected by earth's gravity at sea level, or can remain without oxygen for more than 1000 hours and turn themselves into frogs afterwards.

        The assumption that there are more realities is a mere play of words or semantics.
    • Nov 3 2013: Just like 'there seems no need to assume a creator', I consider no need to reject the existence of a creator. In my book whatever happens to be the case be what happens to be the case.

      The burden of proof... will talk about it latter have to go this instant

      Precisely because there is a reality, we can have an (accurate) perception of it. (or an erroneous one :-)
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        Nov 3 2013: True, you don't need to reject that assumption, though you would violate Occam's razor and prefer a theory that has more redundancy. I would only assume extra parameters in a model if it is needed.

        we can talk about the burden of proof, but only if you assign meaningful aspects of your assumption that are test-able. (If I would add unicorns to the equation that don't influence the remainder of reality, and keep that as my world-view, it's still consistent, though I added an unneeded assumption)
        • Nov 3 2013: Christophere

          Please keep in mind that this is intended as an objective intellectual interchange, putting personal feeling a bit aside and seeking a more enriching understandings on all parts an we jointly seek to explore the topic.

          Considering that you are introducing the assumption of what is test-able, and shifting to hypothesis and theory rather than sticking to knowing simple facts based on knowing the facts... it seems quite evident to me why you mention Occam's razor violations :-) . Yes 'the hypothesis with the fewest assumptions should be selected'. That being the case when one knows what be, it needn't require hypothesis nor be test-able nor need to be proven, for one knows what be. To use a rather simplistic example a murderer becomes a murderer when they perform the act not on the grounds of getting caught and some authority declaring them guilty or innocent or being mercifully forgiven.

          "a supposition or a system of ideas intended to explain something, esp. one based on general principles independent of the thing to be explained" becomes obsolete when an individual knows something directly and does not need the explanations of something.

          Note that 'we can talk about the burden of proof' if we choose to talk about such matters... adding the assumption that it must be test-able excludes that which be and which isn't test-able... non the less it be and remains being. To link it back into the context of this conversation it would be akin to seeking to talk only of the reality which can be sensed and exuding the reality which can't be sensed which be and which isn't sensible... non the less it be reality and remains being real.

          BTW some moles require the extra assumptions and extra parameters to model reality... and when done correctly add noting nor take away anything relevant to the reality modeled never the less to keep things simple its best to seek to keep models simple...
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        Nov 3 2013: Esteban,

        I understand we are on an intellectual interchange, so I don't take difference in opinion as an offence.

        Your example of a murderer is a definition... 'someone who murders' is 'a murderer'... So the to 'test' if someone is a murderer is to find proof that he/she did murder someone. I don't need to accept that the person is a murderer until I have the evidence. So assuming that one is a murderer is not even a redundant assumption, it might even be a false assumption.

        I can go with the idea that a person doesn't "need" an explanation, but if he wants to convince others of his/her beliefs he sure needs to have one (unless he wants to convince people who take a person's conviction as true, which is something a kid does naturally from a parent for example).

        There might exist things that are un-testable, but those things might as well not exist.
        Important note: I mean test-able in principle (as there are things that are hard to test, but are not un-testable in principle while it might take eons to do in practice): Something that cannot affect us (like an invisible/intangible gnome that doesn't even affect the molecules, radiation or neutrino's in our universe in any direct or indirect way) can as well be said to be non-existent for all practical matters. People are free to believe in it. There is no possible (test-able in principle) way to prove it. I, however will consider it among the fairy-tales and fantasy of our imagination.

        The expression "it does not matter" comes to mind. So on intellectual level, I cannot exclude such gnomes, but they don't (affect any form of) matter.

        I don't get your 'mole' argument... do you mean the blind moles that have a queen and are one of the strangest mammals on earth? I don't get how they would need extra assumptions when it comes to evolution theory.
        • Nov 3 2013: Glad to see that we agree on differences in opinions being differences in opinion and not insulting offenses :-)... its been an experience that some do find offensive when others points out the truth especially when it shows the veracity (or lack of it) in what they said... the righteous welcome the truth even when it exposes an error related to them for they see such occurrence as an invitation to correct what needs correcting.

          The subtle point I was seeking to make with the example of a murderer was: that the murderer be a murderer given the murderer be a murderer and finding the proof (or not being able to prove ) that the murderer be a murderer does not change the fact of them being what they are. Of course if one assumes someone is a murderer when in fact they aren't one belongs to a different topic. Evidently to me, 'you' does not need to accept that the murderer is a murderer even when 'you' has the evidence.

          The notion of one wanting to convince others of certain true beliefs/facts can presents quite a challenge especially when others 'refuse to be convinced' because of certain beliers/'facts' they hold to be true. Its also possible that this results in shifting the burden of proof from 'one' to 'the other' while also introducing additional assumptions. We could get into dialoguing why this may take place and instances of where this takes place if need be... In principle everything is test-able, in practice somethings are practically impossible to test especially for some of us and still what exists exists. Take for example the claim "There is no possible (test-able in principle) way to prove it )". Do we know for a fact that true? BTW stories are one of those things that is something that cannot affect us which does affect us.

          I had to go look for the 'mole' argument ... I realized it should had been the 'model' argument... no wonder that 'mole' made little sense to you... thanks for providing interesting notions related to the moles
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      Nov 3 2013: I would agree with Chrisophe on this one. It is important to separate external reality from our percention of it. There most definitely is an 'absolute' physical universe that is independent of human existence or our perception of it (or that of any other animal on planet Earth) since it existed long before life did. This reality just trundles along, doing its thing, oblivious to the fact that we may or may not be watching.

      Along come animals with sense organs designed to help them find their way in this physical reality by providing them with a selection of relevant information about their surroundings. On the basis of this information they construct an internal representation of external reality. Importanly, this is a representation, not the same thing. It's like a photo of a tree not being the same thing as the tree.

      Somewhere down the line, humans popped up with basically the same functions, but the additional capacity to ponder this situation and get confused by it. When you look at your hand, you are not seeing the physical reality of your hand. You are seeing the picture that your brain has constructed on the basis of the photons that have reflected off you hand into your eye and stimulated light-sensitive cells there to fire off impulses into your brain. The two are connected by of a completely different nature.

      The fact that it is difficult to perceive our perceptions in this way is entirely understandable. If we were to perceive it as no more than a subjective sketch, we would be less effective in matching our behaviour with events taking place around us. Little surprise, then, that evolution has built into our minds the impression that our representation IS reality.
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      Nov 4 2013: There is the kind of reality we use as a model to make sense of our surroundings. But at the same time we also know that this "reality" is a pretty faulty and incomplete representation of what really is.
      Nevertheless, for all practical purpose it works because it is a model we all share.
      However there is much more to reality than the working model we use on a daily basis.
      In physics the currently most accepted theory is M theory which has it its core the idea that there is no single history to the universe but that the universe has all possible histories and our observations right now influence its history. What does something like that mean to the concept of reality ?
      • Nov 5 2013: Yeap right now one each and can change the future, the present, the past... so what will each choose to cultivate?
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        Nov 5 2013: I don't think your claim about the M-theory is right... but I might be mistaken (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/M-theory) Maybe you could provide me with some links to more information?
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        Nov 6 2013: @ Harald. I read 'The Grand Design' and it's an interesting read. But what I got from it about M-theory is slightly different from what you got. In simple words, M-theory is like the story of five blind men and the elephant. When reality is as vast as anyone can think of and any given theory can explain only a part of it and starts to conflict with another theory that otherwise explains another part of it nicely, the most intelligent choice seems to be making a map of theories to try to have a complete understanding of reality. It is essential in this approach to disregard the fundamental incongruities between major theories. It's like two spouses deciding to make a compromise in order to run a family.
        It seems therefore that a general form of reality is disjointed at this moment. I know we love to believe it is complete but until we have a solid evidence to that, assuming a continuous all conforming reality is a mere wish.
        • Nov 6 2013: the fundamental incongruities between the stances require adequate resolution... which may involve distinguishing and separating functional properties from systemic properties and effects. to but it bluntly when someone who is wrong tells me I am wrong I thank them, when they tell me I am right, I wonder if its because they realize that I am right or because I happen to be wrong
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          Nov 6 2013: Pabrita, I don't think I got into any explanation about M-theory and yes, I agree with what you state here.
          M theory is string theory taken a step further. Stephen Hawking actually explained it quite nicely with his analogy to multiple, overlapping maps.
          If true, it would change our concept of reality completely. Who can easily wrap his mind around the existence of 11 dimensions or branes ?
          Personally I'm a bit skeptical whether M-theory will actually gather steam. The problem I see so far is that there is no way to measure or observe the constructs the theory is calling for and more importantly, it lacks predictions that, if coming through, would be evidence for the correctness of the theory.
          So far, everything is just a lot of mathematical constructs.
        • Nov 6 2013: My familiarity with M theory and string theory is quite limited... what I stated stems from a model I created to exemplify and make a point in a different dialogue... I used Cartesian an polar coordinate systems and a simple 'constant' function to demonstrate how a horizontal line and a circle represented the same thing... and how these where a particular case of a spiral and an inclined line... of course depending on the coordinate system a circle was a simple constant function or a quadratic equation... I also developed and extended the dualistic metaphor that uses a map and territory into a triad metaphor that links to other models I have created. In a way its like moving from a dualistic hot-cold subjective notion into an standard objective scalar notion involving temperature. Its easy to move from knowing the temperature to declare if its hot or cold but the other way is a bit more complicated and less accurate...

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