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Saturday, October 5, 2013

The Mystery of Color

THE MYSTERY OF COLOR                                                            part one

Color is one of those mysteries in our universe that scientists and philosophers have difficulty explaining.  We see color in our everyday lives, and take its existence for granted. But most philosophers and scientists agree that color does not exist. At least, it does not exist within an object itself. It seems to be a matter of human perception.  Color is a good example of the crisis in epistemology that confronts our postmodern world. How can we know the truth about anything if the world comes to us filtered through the human mind?

My first car was a deep green 1965 Mercury Comet Cyclone 289 V 8.  There were times, usually in the evening, when light would reflect off the car in a certain way giving the impression that it was dark blue.  It was a puzzling phenomenon to me, but I never once thought my friends had stolen my car, painted it blue, and then returned it.  My Cyclone was dark green and I was sure of it, not just because the title said so, but because my mind has a system of discernment that helps me navigate through the puzzles and deceptions I encounter in everyday life.  

Human beings engage in a process of analyzing data collected from our senses and then integrate that sense-data into common understanding.  This process is what we can call our epistemological navigational system.  We navigate through all kinds of information, and even though our information is always limited, and sometimes tainted, we organize, evaluate, and then draw conclusions about what is real and true as opposed to what is illusionary and false.  Our common sense is not perfect, but it usually works well enough to define our everyday experiences—usually.  Common sense, however, does not always put us on firm footing.  Science has taught us to be a bit more skeptical about our everyday common experiences. 

It's a Beautiful Mind

If you have ever seen the movie, It’s a Beautiful Mind, you know that the human mind cannot always discern between illusion and reality.  Few of us are schizophrenic like John Nash, but like Nash, we filter the world through our mind.  We are reminded of the little message which is scribed on the side mirror of our cars. "Objects are closer than they appear." In other words, we see the world through the mirror of our mind.  Our perception of the world is a construct of reality, not reality itself.  But notice one of the ways Nash was able to detect his delusions.  A little girl named Marcee had been one of his friends for many years, but he observed that she never grew up.  He was able to discern that she was not real because she never aged.  Nash’s ability to transcend his own perception of things made it possible for him to discern truth from fiction.  If we could never transcend our horizon (range of knowledge), it would be impossible to correct our errors, or add to our knowledge.  We would be trapped in our own perspectives.  

Does Color Really Exist?

Philosophers and scientists have debated the nature of color for several centuries.  This may sound like a silly debate, but listen to the questions.  Is color part of the physical makeup of an object?  Or is color a human perception that is created in the mind of the perceiver?  In other words, is color an objective reality that exists independent of the mind?  Or is color a subjective experience that is dependent on human perception?  For example, why did I believe my Cyclone was green instead of blue?  Why could it not just as well have been the other way around?  The answer may not be important when we are talking about the color of cars, but it makes a big difference when we are talking about important things like what medicine should I take, or how should I treat my fellow human beings?

Common sense may suggest that objects have color but most scientists disagree.  Scientists have concluded that there is nothing within the molecular structure of an object that can account for its color.  Color is not one of the properties of an object.  Therefore color must originate from somewhere outside the object itself.  The standard scientific explanation for color has been to suggest that color is a reflection of wavelengths given off by an object's shape and texture.  If this is true, then an objective definition of color can be established--somewhat.  In other words, color is a secondary quality which is derived from the primary qualities of an object.  The great British philosopher, John Locke made this argument over three centuries ago.  

This sounds like a reasonable way to go, but Eric Rubenstein, professor at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, (see Color, The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy), points out that there are problems with this definition of color.  For one thing, we have not really explained what color is, we have only explained how color works.  Why does the surface texture of an object and wavelengths of light from an object produce color, and why one color instead of another?  But even more puzzling, scientists have found that two objects can have different shapes and textures, give off different wavelengths of light, and yet the perceiver can experience the same color.  Rubenstein explains:

     For instance, light that is 100% 577nm (a nanometer is a billionth of a meter) 
     will appear as pure yellow. But light that is composed of 50% 540nm and 50%
     670nm will appear qualitatively indistinguishable. Since different physical
     structures can produce different wavelengths, all of which yield the same 
     color experience, it appears we are left defining color as the structure of an
     object by saying, Yellow= microstructure 1 OR microstructure 2 OR 
     microstructure 3 OR....
          This is, in other words, a disjunction and yellow looks to be definable as a
     disjunction only.  There is apparently no single physical property of objects,
     or wavelengths, of reflections of light, and so forth that all yellow objects have
     in common--let along yellow of non-ordinary objects like the sun, after
     images, and so forth. 

The Limitations of Knowledge


Rubenstein's point puts us back to square one. Our common sense tells us that objects are colored.  But scientists are agreed that an object does not have color within itself, and efforts to explain color as indirect results of physical efforts are unreliable, or at least do not tell the whole story, then where do we go from here?