TED Conversations

Harald Jezek

Owner, Nuada beauty+wellness


This conversation is closed.

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 ?


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 23 2013: Eventually, reality comes down to what one experiences -- either somebody has one or more senses, or has no senses. It's difficult to imagine what would be the reality for someone born without any senses. But the one certain thing is that whatever any reality he/she experience, that reality will be always related to his/her consciousness, exactly like anyone born with senses. So consciousness in whatever form is finally the sole conceiver of any reality one lives in.
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      Nov 23 2013: Let's assume a person is born without any senses (let's also assume that's possible). Do you think that consciousness would develop without any sensory input ?
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        Nov 24 2013: As I wrote in my comment, ”It's difficult to imagine what would be the reality for someone born without any senses”. But please see that your question is not that simple as it looks. Because it should be noticed that among the 5 senses we have, 4 are very sophisticated, and so perhaps we can imagine that somehow one might for some reasons could be born without them. But there’s the 5th sense which is not that sophisticated, but also I guess it’s the most direct and basic one, and that is the sense of Touch. Perhaps better to say it’s actually the 1st sense, as I guess it was the first to be developed in the most primitive life forms 3 billion years ago. So I just don’t know if it’s ever possible to completely lacking that sense on each and every centimeter of the human skin.

        However, even we assume it’s possible to completely missing all the senses, it should be remembered that reality is not composed only from outwardly impressions but also from inwardly /feelings//thoughts//imagination. So, suppose this utterly senseless person walks. Since he is missing even the sense of Touch, he does not feel whether the ground under his feet is cold or hot, thorny or smooth, hard or soft and so on. But still he has got the feeling that something is supporting his legs from underneath, because otherwise he could not walk. Assuming his brain is functioning well, this would be his rational conclusion. Henceforth, his imagination will get into action and start building his mental reality and so on.
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          Nov 25 2013: We tend to think in pictures. If somebody says "car" you get a mental picture of a car and know what this person is talking about. If you never saw a car before you still could ask questions as what this object is about and once explained to you, you most likely would have a good understanding of the term car.
          However, a person without any senses couldn't create mental images because they rely on memories and past experiences, nor could he ask questions to narrow down what the object in question might be.
          In other words, could this person even develop thoughts, imaginations and feelings ? Don't they always rely on past experiences and memories of one sort or another ?
          Hence, he wouldn't be able to conclude anything. Actually I assume he wouldn't even be able to formulate a thought.
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        Nov 24 2013: I think no, the person will have no consciousness at all. I am in a little disagreement with Yubal and let me explain why.
        Human beings have more than 5 senses. They have 5 specialized sensory organs. But those 5 and rest of all sensory processing are done by the brain directly or indirectly. So if we take it that a human being has strictly no sense, there is no communication of outward stimuli to the brain and the brain is only conducting business of the internal working of the body. That being the case, I think, the basic premises of a self recognizing consciousness is lost.
        There is a valid scientific theory of the evolution of a complex brain in animals that says that the it evolved from the basic necessity of locomotion. So merely walking would require neuro-sensory support (hence some form of consciousness).
        It may be possible that some form of consciousness is existent in organisms devoid of a highly developed specialized organ such as a brain. But still they must be able to exchange information with the environment surrounding them in order to live. That exchange will ensure some form of consciousness.
        This part of discussion is interesting as it points out to the dependence of reality on the sense/perception and consciousness.
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        Nov 26 2013: Harald, this is my reply to your last comment "We tend to think in pictures."

        You make a very good point. I agree with your analysis with car. But please see that in your reply also you are thinking in pictures. Because our conceptions are not limited to only what we see, hear, touch...etc. You are giving this example and come to such conclusion because we have these senses and they occupy our mind. We get indulged in these sensory impressions because they grab the domination on our minds, as they are so powerful. And as such, we build our reality under their domination. So you are perhaps correct in saying that such senseless person could not ever imagine what a car is and also other mental images. But who says that's the only possible way to create the overall mental images ??

        If we return to my previous example, where such a senseless person walks or even just lies permanently in his bed, assuming his brain is functioning OK....... Please try to imagine how he would be thinking. Can you say beyond any reasonable doubt that he can't create absolutely any image of some possible reality in his mind, using his imagination ?? It does not mean that the reality he creates in his mind is correct or factually true. But that IS the only image of reality existing in his mind.
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          Nov 26 2013: Hi Yubal, you are right, I can't say beyond a reasonable doubt that a person born without senses can't think anything at all. Perhaps a neuro scientist could answer this question with more certainty. Maybe the brain could resort to another mental "language". Who knows ?
          However, when we analyze our own thoughts, aren't they all made of our experiences and memories that our mind created based on whatever sensory input we got at some point in our lives ? Is there anything in your mind that wouldn't have required any sensory input ?
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        Nov 27 2013: Harald, this a reply to your reply, "Hi Yubal, you are right, I can't say beyond a reasonable doubt......."

        I assume that when you say "sensory input", you mean only to external sensory input. My reply and all my arguments from the beginning are based on this assumption.

        I am not sure that everything we think, imagine, feel is made only from external sensory input. In our routine way of life and thinking it's extremely difficult to analyze and try to differentiate between what is originated in our minds from external input and what from our in-built qualities. There had been all along the history major debates and controversies between these 2 outlooks.

        But we don't need to go that far. Suppose you eat a mango and experience it's taste. Now somebody who had never seen and eaten a mango asks you to scientifically and verbally analyze the taste of mango for him. With all the sophisticated scientific instruments we have invented, and with all the highest verbal skill anybody can have, will it be ever possible to describe the mango's taste for such a person ?? No. Because the very experience of mango's taste, like perhaps all other our experiences, are beyond any verbal or scientific analysis. What scientific or verbal analysis do, is just to map our experiences and to express them in technical or illustrative terms. But they are not able to replace the very experience itself. It's the same with our much deeper emotions like happiness, anger, love....etc. Indeed they can be provoked by external sensory input, but they are not exclusively dependent just on the external input.
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          Nov 27 2013: "I am not sure that everything we think, imagine, feel is made only from external sensory input"
          No. I'm not certain either, but on the other hand, when I try analyzing my thoughts I always have to conclude that at some point, the source for them was a sensory input.

          "With all the sophisticated scientific instruments we have invented, and with all the highest verbal skill anybody can have, will it be ever possible to describe the mango's taste for such a person ??"
          Well, we certainly can analyze all the components that make up the aroma of a mango and the fragrance industry uses this capability extensively in order to manufacture artificial flavors and fragrances.
          The real question is whether or not we are able to communicate a odor or taste, or any sensory experience in such a way that another person gets a 100 % accurate impression of our own experience, I agree with you, I don't think we can.
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        Nov 28 2013: Even if we prepare artificially the perfect flavor and odor, finally that person needs to taste that artificial product to know what is the taste of mango. There's no another way.
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      Nov 24 2013: Just a notice - no living creature can survive if it is having no sensations - sensations indicate the very basic process of life. Brains cannot function at all withoit any sensations (even in clinical experience of cases of intensive care artificial support). Absolutely Senseless "person" will not walk, unless it is a robot.
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      Nov 25 2013: If I understand your point correctly, Yubal, you, essentially, say, that whenever we have life, we have some sort of sensory input processing. I think, we have many more senses than 5. The 5 are just the most obvious - we are aware of them. There is also a sense of gravity and balance. It seems to be distinct from the 5 usually mentioned. We are also processing signals from our internal organs. E.g. feeling constipated or feeling fatigue in our muscles does not seem to fall into into any of the 5 senses. So, when you say that a person deprived of senses would still have some sort of self-awareness, you seem to limit the meaning of "senses" to the 5 classical ones. Which, essentially, means that there will be other senses to build consciousness upon.

      Pabitra's point seems to be that in the absense of ALL senses, consciousness is impossible. After all, we would have no information to be aware of ourselves. Without sensory input, there is nothing to be "aware" or "conscious" of and there is no way to be. I think, the common ground in what you say is "whenever we have life, we have some sort of sensory input processing" - simply because life means adapting to external conditions which implies a feedback system.

      But here is a related question: Is what's going on inside my body "internal" to "me"? What is "I"? Is it just my body or something transcedental? My brain melts down when I ponder these questions.
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        Nov 25 2013: Arkady & Pabitra, excellent distinctions you make about the various sorts of senses. You are also right that I had limited the senses to the 5 input senses from the external. I did that because for me that is the first meaning when talking hereby about senses. There are 2 reasons for that.

        1. SENSE by Oxford dictionary:
        The first meaning there: “faculty by which the body perceives an external stimulus; one of the faculties of sight, smell, hearing, taste, and touch.”

        2. The host of this discussion asks most of his questions at the title regarding these 5 senses. Just In his 2nd last question he asks about getting born without any senses, but still in that question there’s a hidden pre-assumption that our awareness is functioning.

        However, people too easily ignore our internal world which is emotions, imagination, thoughts – which all influence our consciousness. Suppose one doesn’t have even sense of gravity & balance as you say. But so what ?? He can lay down on bed and be fed by somebody. But this does not cancel his consciousness – even suppose just consciousness that he exists.

        Not only your brain melts down when pondering these questions. Many brains had melted in the past by these questions. Exactly because of this the ancient Indians came to the conclusion that to answer these questions, brain and its normal thinking activity are not enough. What’s required to answer these questions is to get rid of this brain activity, to completely pause the thinking activity and then just to watch yourself without interferring, to experience the pure consciousness. Not to think about it, not to talk about it, not to describe it. They said it’s absolutely impossible to really grasp what the consciousness is just by thinking because the thinking process is subordinate to the pure consciousness. To achieve all this they developed the Yoga and Meditation.
        • Nov 25 2013: Yubal,

          Note that what they say, what happens to be and the actual congruence between them.
          Just think that they may not want you to think about it because they can't think about it nor want to be subordinate to the pure consciousness. To really grasp what the consciousness is may be accomplished through the appropriate thoughts, ideas feelings emotions actions... which can only be understood by those who understand. Kind of esoteric from a certain viewpoint. What I want to share is that to answer these questions one needs the proper thinking activity and with the proper thinking activity it is more than enough for anyone can get it right when they know the right answer... those who know the right answer don't have to ask what is the right answer... those who don't know the right answer will not understand the answer even when given the right answer.

          You probably know the saying that when the student is ready the master-teacher shows up... and they walk as one sharing the adventure of learning. Before the student was ready there was just the students.
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          Nov 25 2013: Re: " But so what ?? He can lay down on bed and be fed by somebody. But this does not cancel his consciousness – even suppose just consciousness that he exists."

          That person would still have a sense of hunger, perhaps. So, there would still be sensory input to the brain from the person's stomach. And if not, people would call such person "unconscious". So, my point still stands: "wherever there is life, there is some sort of sensory signal processing." And, by the way, we may have sensory input, but be unaware of it like, for example, we do not "feel" a watch on our wrist unless we consciously direct our attention to our wrist. We also may have a lack of sensory input and be unaware of it being sure that we have sensory input where we don't (e.g. blind spot or being sure that the watch is on our wrist when it's not). So, what does consciousness have to do with reality? It perceives things that are not there and fails to perceive things that exist.

          So, signal processing seems to be necessary for life to exist. However, life is not necessary for signal processing to exist. Cell phones these days have visual sensors, audio sensors, touch sensors, RF sensors, gravity sensors, proximity sensors. I'm sure, taste and smell sensors are technically possible. There is a great deal of signal processing going on in cell phones. Cell phones are "aware" of many, many things. Can they be called "conscious"? Can consciousness exist outside a living body?
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          Nov 25 2013: There is much talk about AI these days. AI presumes that it is possible to create consciousness or awareness outside a human being. But then, why can't we think of the universe as conscious? E.g. Earth receives "sensory input" from the Sun and the Moon. It "reacts" to these signals in various ways. Why can't living creatures on Earth be compared to neurons establishing links with each other? White cells in the blood attack and destroy bacteria and viruses, much like police tackles criminals or predators kill the prey.

          We don't usually think of Earth as conscious. And, if we do, we mean it in metaphoric or allegorical sense. But then, when we talk about our own consciousness (a concept which is reduced to nonsense by the reductionist approach widely used in science), don't we also use allegories and metaphors?

          I'm not trying to argue with you or push any particular agenda or opinion of mine. I'm just shining light on some facets of this question that cannot be answered. These discussions can go on and on and on and, at the end, we will just confess our inability to answer them (if we are wise enough to do that like Socrates who, allegedly, said "I know that I know nothing").
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        Nov 25 2013: Dear Arkady,
        It is better to risk your brain to melt down rather than having the safety of getting it frozen! :)
        There are levels of consciousness I think.
        The most developed and complex one is one associated with mind, the self recognizing one that gives us the idea of 'self' as observing and making meaning of the external world through inbound stimuli. The 5 senses that we are so familiar with are important in this context. The sense of orientation controlled by middle ear also fall in this category. The sense of temperature too, I guess.
        When brain stops processing all those signals, we are in what we loosely call the 'unconscious' state. But there are other senses still functional; senses that are internal to the body, senses that control bowel movement, complex decision making of guts to digest food, senses that control heart rate etc. The brain is still functioning and one can say, there is some sort of consciousness that works for preservation of life.
        I think we can hardly take it as a consciousness that has anything to do with processing the reality.
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        Nov 26 2013: Arkady, this is my reply to your last replies ("Re: " But so what ??", " There is much talk about AI these days.").

        This discussion was initiated with the question, "What is reality?"

        When discussing reality as perceived in our minds, there's a pre-assumption that we are talking about conscious minds. Even when we dream in sleep and we experience the dream as reality while sleeping, there must be at least some level of alert consciousness to experience the dream so lively. So it's obvious that whenever we say reality hereby, even in the most senseless person's mind, we mean to a conscious mind who can experience things while being alertly aware of whatever reality it experiences//creates//imagines in his mind. It's not about just life signals or anything else in unconscious mind. It's not just about hunger, but it's about the awareness of being hungry, which I say the senseless person can experience lively in his mind, and so this like other things would be his//her mind’s subjective valid reality.

        You gave an example of a watch on our wrist we do not feel. So think what does this mean reality-wise. It means that as long as one does not feel the watch on his wrist, that watch is NOT a part of his reality. For that period of time the watch does not exist for him//her.

        Cellphones, cameras, computers, AI, are not conscious at all, and in my view they will never be. They do not have minds and so they are incapable of being conscious for experiencing, although they have all the electric currents and the sophisticated components. So we see that reality as we experience is not just about electric stimulus in our nerves. It’s not just about replicating mechanistically the brain processes.

        I had elaborated discussions about this in another TED debate:

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          Nov 26 2013: Yubal,

          I read your comments. Thanks. I don't disagree with you. But all the examples you have simply express a belief that consciousness is something that only live creatures can have. However, you do not explain why.

          I also had a couple comments in that thread. I don't know how to create direct links to them, but you may scroll down below your comment to find them. I also explored this question in my own conversation http://www.ted.com/conversations/14279/is_artificial_intelligence_pos.html but I did not get the answer.

          What is it exactly that allows us to say that we are "conscious" and "intelligent"?

          Watch this http://youtu.be/W1czBcnX1Ww
          When I first saw this video, my reaction was "WTF?" But I was very impressed when I watched the guy trying to kick this machine out of balance and I saw how it behaves on a slippery surface. It does seem to be "aware" of the environment and I doubt that the exact movements of the legs to keep balance on ice is programmed. I think, the time is near when these things will look like living creatures.

          Another example: http://www.ted.com/talks/raffaello_d_andrea_the_astounding_athletic_power_of_quadcopters.html

          Note what Raffaello says about the quads around 12 min of the video:
          "Take this quad, for example. It's trying to stay at a fixed point in space. If I try to move it out of the way, it fights me, and moves back to where it wants to be." I find it very interesting that, perhaps, he does not consider these machines conscious or intelligent, but, nevertheless, he uses language as if they are. The machine is "trying" to do something, "fights" and "wants".

          It seems to me that if AI is created, it will not be on purpose and it will look different from what we expect. It will be real. I asked this chatbot http://www.chatbots.org/chat_bot/captain_kirk/ "what is intelligence?" The chatbot replied "Intelligence is the ability to fake intelligence". There is no difference between "real" and "fake" intelligence.
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          Nov 27 2013: Just watched a fascinating film about "intelligence of plants".

          It turns out, plants react to stimuli - touch, light, electricity, gravity, sound; plants have memory; plants communicate with each other, and have cells resembling and functioning like neurons. Can it be called "intelligence"?
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        Nov 27 2013: Arkady, this is my reply to your last 2 comments: "I read your comments.", "Just watched a fascinating film......"

        I would not call it my belief. It's rather my reason's judgement summing up what we know and see today. Perhaps my judgement will be found to be wrong somewhere in the future. Or a new data will come tomorrow which might change my this judgement. But right now this is my best judgement about machines and their inability to acquire consciousness.

        My explanation is this: Life (consciousness) as we know today began to form about 3 billion years ago. Besides some very marginal exceptions, this life has something very common and that is it's Organic (Carbon) basis. I have no clue, and I doubt if any scientist has, why the life got formed and evolved only on such narrow basis of carbon, etc. Why life did not evolve on the basis of so many other elements ?? My reason tells me that if any consciousness or life could be formed by some alternative way, this alternative way would not wait for 3 billion years to get started. We would see at least some very basic forms of life in that alternative way, whatever it might be.

        Another explanation is that, we find out that life is not merely playing around with electro-chemical processes, or with electric currents, or with various mixtures of chemicals. If this was so, scientists would be able to create life in laboratories from the basic elements 100 years ago. But they are unable to create even a single cell in their laboratories.

        Plants do have consciousness. IMO, any consciousness means some sort of intelligence. Intelligence does not has to be only like humans. Intelligence in my view is anything which allows its carrier to feel its surrounding, make distinctions between the countless parameters constructing its surrounding and to selectively interact with its surrounding for its conscious, sub-conscious or unconscious purposes.
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          Nov 28 2013: I think, "why life is carbon-based?" seems to be a fairly easy question if you consider the properties of carbon. Here is an interesting discussion about it: http://www.physicsforums.com/showthread.php?t=156166

          The answers seem to be: a) carbon is very abundant; b) carbon can give up as easily as attract up to 4 electrons. Hence it allows a huge amount of combinations to form molecules with other atoms. More difficult question is whether other life forms are, at all, possible. To answer it, we need to consider all possible life forms. The thread I referred to discusses life based on silicon and mentions that if metabolism is to be based on oxidation, SiO2 (sand) is more difficult to expel from organism than CO2 (a gas).

          So, you seem to claim that consciousness is impossible without a living organism. And, since we do not know life forms based on other elements, it's got to be a carbon-based life form.

          But really, is life characterized only by carbon? What if humans create an artificial something able to grow, reproduce, and adapt to the environment. Why can't it be called "life"?

          Consider the swarms of quadcopters in those videos. If there were millions of those things, flying around, wouldn't people just treat them the same way they treat flies, locusts, or birds? And if you encounter "something" which looks like a human, communicates like a human (creates and communicates ideas, understands humor and cultural references, relates to emotions), wouldn't you treat it like a human? Would it matter whether there is blood or electrical circuits under the skin?

          I have a feeling that if something like this ever emerges, it will be unintentional. Emotions are irrational. A programmed emotion is not an emotion. So, we will not be able to call it "artificial intelligence".

          Quite honestly, I myself am not a believer in AI. But I tend to argue with myself to see if I could be wrong.
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        Nov 28 2013: Arkady, you wrote: "So, you seem to claim that consciousness is impossible without a living organism. "

        I am not sure if the above follows from what I had written. I think, in my view, it's vice versa. I think life is impossible without consciousness. What we had seen until today, consciousness gets created only within certain pattern of atomic arrays, which we call Organic and we define it as life. There are theories, and even some deeply thinking philosophers and deeply experiencing mystics who claim that pure consciousness actually does not require any physical mean to exist. I don't want to go into this. I just try to find what CANNOT be rather than what can be. Definitely I can't void the possibility that some new and unexpected discovery or invention will occur and thus we will have totally new external entities or internal insights.

        About people treating something artificial as a human. That's not rare even today. We sometimes get emotionally attached to certain object. In the dreams we treat an absolutely virtual reality as the absolute truth. In Asimov's SF stories we had seen how people treat robots as humans, etc. I tend to agree that if some true intelligence emerge, it might be unintentionally created.

        That's one best thing -- to argue with yourself. That's perhaps the best way to make real mental//intellectual breakthroughs. I do it too. And after reaching some subjectively convincing conclusions, to share them with others and discuss in case of disagreements.
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          Nov 29 2013: I watched this video of Allan Watts http://youtu.be/P78hrdZutsI where he describes two ways of learn about the world. One way is labeled "western" - to divide things into parts and describe how the parts work together step by step. This is how machines and artificial things are put together. The other way is labeled "eastern" - to understand things as a whole and perceive how they "grow" from within, rather than being put together from the parts. I think, this reflects the fundamental difference betweeen living things and artificial machines: machines are put together from parts, step by step, while living things grow from within, all at once. See how he juxtaposes making an artificial flower to the growth of a live flower.

          He also mentions that words, by nature, cannot adequately describe growth of natural things because words are sequential, and in nature things are happening all at once. Inspite of our inability to describe these things in words, it can be said that we "understand" them because, for example, we can coordinate hundreds of muscles in our body without even knowing how many we have.

          This is a paradoxical statement, because in his lecture, Watts does exactly that - tries to divide concepts into parts ("western" - "eastern") and put them into words.

          Perhaps, this is the reason we have difficulty telling whether consciousness can exist without life or life without consciousness. Perhaps, they constitute a whole. Without thinking too deep, it seems fairly clear that consciousness is inseparable from life and we don't think of machines as conscious. But when I try to define things - what is consciousness? what is life? what is the difference between a living thing and a machine? That's when things get awfully confusing and complicated.

          Who doesn't understand what reality is? Yet, try to define it - and it just falls apart, turns into utter nonsense.

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