Saturday, June 27, 2009

Metaphysics of color

How would you describe red to a blind person? How would you describe color? We can't do it! I came to the conclusion that there is no such thing in reality as a color, but how can this be? Surely we see them, red is very much real to me but how can I possibly describe red to a blind person? Is there something that is like to see red? How could I describe such radical differences between red and green?

So colors are not properties of the objects we see, they're our subjective sensation of them. They're not an objective feature of the world, the real world doesn't have colors. So how can we imagine reality without colors? It's also no use of trying to imagine it in just black and white, or shades of gray, because those are also subjective constructs in our minds. So what's left then? Nothing, it's a paradox attempting to visualize something without color.

We know this for a long time but I don't think we ever stop to think about the amazing conclusions that follow. We think we see reality but we basically just walk around in a construct of reality that our mind puts together so that we can survive. It's like a quote I heard from John Medina (a developmental molecular biologist and research consultant - check out his book: Brain Rules) "Our brain isn't interested in reality, it's interested in surviving".

Now you might say, we know much about colors, we even make tv screens and monitors that generate them in real time. The problem is that we're not really generating the color itself, we're just making thousands of little dots that emit photons in a given wavelength, the actual color that we're seeing is generated only inside of our brains.

An alien might argue that grass is actually pink and he wouldn't be wrong about it. We would all only need to agree that objectively, grass reflects light in a given wavelength to which the human brain assigns the green color and a pink color in an alien's brain. It's false that grass IS green, or that green is a property of grass. Not that there would be any way of any of us to show the other what are the actual colors we're seeing... I mean, what if the alien sees the grass as pink but calls green to pink? How would any of us explain the other what is the color that we're seeing if that color is not an objective "thing" that can be described? We would say that the grass is green and they would say the same thing but we would be really be seeing different things without ever realizing that.

Of course, the alien might pick up a pink brush and say that green is of that color, then we'd know that they're seeing grass as pink, no matter how they call pink, but imagine that aliens see a brand new color in the infrared part of the spectrum. It's a new color that we don't see and is different from all the colors we know of. How would an alien possibly describe such a thing to us? We can't even imagine what a "new" color could be. In the same way, it would be impossible to describe a color to an alien that doesn't see it, just like the blind person in the beginning.


  1. Wonderful analysis. Who actually "sees" the colours? Tha answer is: Only a conscious entity can "see" or experience colour. That irreducible entity can be termed as the "soul". Think about it.

  2. Hello,
    Very good analysis I would say. I had posted the following on Wikipedia talk pages (and even got blocked).

    Can robots smell? (in respnse to "Publunch would like to know a little bit about artificial olfaction, i.e. robots that can smell. Any good leads? Thanks --Publunch 16:50, 8 January 2006 (UTC)")
    What does one mean by artificial olfaction? First, just think about the sensation of smell. There are good odors (rose, sandalwood, camphor, jasmine, musk etc.), bad odors (hydrogen sulphide, rotting flesh, skunk spray), some are in between and there are many other types. The nature of these smells may be attributed to the chemicals, but what about the sensation of smell itself. We cannot describe any particular smell (the actual perception of the smell) using any amount of descriptive words, pictures or sound or anything else.
    Suppose I wish to describe the smell of sandalwood paste (paste made by grinding the wood of the sandal tree with water), using words to someone who has never smelt it. I may tell you the exact chemical composition of the paste, I may be able to describe the response of various sensory organs, neurons and how the brain recognizes it etc. in elaborate scientific language or at most I may compare the smell to some substance that you already know: but what about the experience of the odor itself? The odor has to be personally experienced to know how exactly sandalwood paste smells. Now when we smell something, we say "I smell", or "I like this smell" etc. When we smell something, who exactly is the perceiver of the smell, who actually experiences (feel the exact sensation) this smell (that is "This is rose", "This is phenol" etc.)? Is it the nose? is it the olfactory epithelium? olfactory sensory neurons? The brain? The mind (what is the mind in the first place?)? Our nose, olfactory epithelium, brain etc. are all made of organic matter. Can matter experience ("feel") smells?
    We are conscious beings. We have five material senses plus the mind. We can see, hear, smell, touch, taste & think, feel and will, because we are conscious. We have to go to the root of consciousness (Can modern science really help?). Where does this consciousness come from in the first place? What exactly is consciousness? We have to get answers to this questions first.

    Mayurvg, India