This week we're seeing red -- asking about the metaphysics of color. Is color in the eye of the beholder? Or is color objectively real? Would colors still exist in the world, even if no one was around to see them?
Think of all the different animals and the differences in how they see color. Some don’t see color at all, some see a few colors, others see lots. Some monkeys, for example, see red quite poorly. Birds and bees see colors way up into the ultra-violet range. Other animals see colors way down into the infrared range. Humans are blind to both. So it could seem like color is clearly in the eye of the beholder.
But couldn't this just as easily show that different animals are simply capable of seeing different colors? It doesn’t have to imply that color is merely in the eye of the beholder. Ask yourself which of those animals sees the world’s true colors. You could answer, they all do! With the world is awash in color, it's no surprise that different animals evolved to see different parts of the total color spectrum.
Then again there may be more to it than that. Different observers can see different colors, given the very same light as input -- not because of any differences in what’s out there in the world, but because of differences in their visual systems. In other words, because perceived color is relative, actual color can't be objectively real. We could even reject the very distinction between perceived color and actual color.
Of course, maybe we're just thinking of color like pain. Perceived pain is just... pain. When a needle pricks my skin and hurts me, the pain is obviously totally subjective. It would make no sense to ask, “Would the pain still be in the needle, if no was around to be pricked by it?" Except that for some strange reason with color we have the persistent illusion that it’s objectively out there, splattered all over the surfaces of things.
And yet unlike pain, color certainly appears to be splattered all over. Why can't we take that appearance at face value? Let's try a little thought experiment. Have two people run some water over their hands and then stick their hands into a pot of water at a fixed temperature – say, 70 degrees. Let’s have the first person run cold water – at 35 degrees say – over her hand. Let’s have the second person run hot water – at say 100 degrees – over his. What do you think they're going to experience?
It seems pretty obvious that one is going to experience the water as hot, the other as really cool -- even though the water has a fixed temperature. That’s because the perceived coolness or hotness of the water is totally in the hand of the observer. We may project the coolness or hotness onto the water itself, but it’s not really there. Same thing with color: it's is in the eye of the beholder too. But just like with coldness or hotness, we mistakenly project it out into the world.
Of course, this argument turns on a distinction between the subjective perception of coolness or hotness and its objective correlate -- temperature. We wind up saying that we need to distinguish perceived color – which can vary depending on the state of the observer – from objective color – which is fixed, independent of the observer.
Still, color seems different from temperature. All there is to being red is looking red. It makes no sense whatsoever to say, for example, that a red surface illuminated by a yellow light that then looks black is still actually red. That just shows how we arbitrarily stipulate that the color something really is, is the color it looks like under white light. It’s just a convention, a trick of language.
So does that leaves us only with a choice between radical color skepticism or naïve color realism? I suspect our guest, Jonathan Cohen, may have some colorful thoughts on the issue.