Is colour experience different to colour vision?
What did you think of #thatdress? If one person sees blue and black in the photograph and another sees white and gold, can they both be right with their colour experience?
I’m sitting here with red fingernails, typing on a black keyboard, wearing a grey jumper with a blue mug of muddy brown coffee by my side. I wonder if each of those colours exists; if the red exists independently of the nail varnish, the blue from the china mug. Is colour actually a thing?
A Philosophy lecture at Bristol University has driven me to create the project #ThinkingInColour; my personal investigation into what colour actually is. Except, as fellow Philosophy students might sympathise, there is no definitive answer out there. In this post, Part I, I look at the three main philosophical viewpoints and interview student artist, Mairead Finlay.
My initial thoughts are best explained with a confusion about how to pair the certainty that I am experiencing a colour, the phenomenon of it, with the knowledge that colour vision is a process resulting from lightwaves and neurosignals.
From secondary school, we are taught a simplistic model of colour vision: the rods and cones in the retina of our eyes are perceptive to lights of different wavelengths and there are three types of cones which are responsive to long, medium and short wavelengths. The cones convert light that is reflected off objects into neural signals. Our colour vision is based on the neural outputs of the cones to our visual cortex. Normally, our brains filter out other lightwaves such as ordinary sunlight and illuminants so that we can correctly decipher colours. But with the case of #thatdress and those who see the dress as white and gold, myself included, our brains do not filter out these other lightwaves, so we experience the dress differently.
Have you ever wondered, though, how our basic understanding of colour vision fits with our experiences of colour? We usually think of colours existing as real things. I can distinguish an orange coloured orange from the concept of orange and I can distinguish blue paint from the concept of blue. I’ll call this perspective the colour experience phenomenon, different to the scientific explanation of colour vision, the perspective of rods, cones, lightwaves and neurosignals.
The purpose of my exploration is to understand these two perspectives: the phenomenon of colour experience and the science of colour vision, together.
My Philosophy course has pointed me towards three very plausible ways to solve this dilemma: Realism, Reductive Realism and Eliminativism.
(A) Reductive Realism: colour is light waves
Colour is in fact light waves of varying lengths, interacting with the rods and cones in the retina of your eyes. ‘Blue’ is the interaction of short wavelengths of light with your eyes. Colour is what the scientific perspective describes and it is how colour exists. The essence of ‘blue’ is not how we end up perceiving it in our mind’s eye; this vibrant perspective is reduced to the wavelengths of light, reflected and processed.
If you think that our ideas of colour and talk of colour concepts do not equate to reflected lightwaves, then you have the option B) to say that this concept of ‘colour’ is a fabricated concept, a device to talk about our experiences of colour vision. Or C) you might accept our colour experiences as an abstract, platonic sort of thing, with a real existence.
(B) Eliminativism: ‘colour’ doesn’t exist, light waves do
The scientific explanation of colour vision shows that colours, as we talk about them, don’t exist; all that exists is the lightwaves, our retina, and visual cortex. No ‘red’, ‘blue’, ‘grey’ or ‘purple’ exists. On this view the way we talk about colour is in fact false because when we see a vast array of ‘colours’, all we are experiencing is lightwaves of different lengths: not ‘colour’ as we experience it.
(C) Realism: colours exist independently to lightwaves in colour vision
Realists think that colour exists independently from the scientific explanation of colour vision. Our experience and talk of colour is proof that it is a phenomenon, and we experience the essence of a colour when we see or imagine it, which is different to reducing colour to existing as light waves interacting with rod, cones and neurosignals. This allows us to explain our perspective of colours as we see them, as real experiences because we do not have the same attitude towards ‘blue’ as we do to short wavelengths of light processed through our eyes into neurosignals.
I’ve asked Mairead which view she sides with as a matter of how she places colour experience in the process of colour vision.
Is it (A) the process of colour vision, (B) a fictional device to explain our responses to colour vision, or (C) a phenomenon that we experience, different to the colour vision process?
Mairead uses masses of colour in her dreamlike paintings. I discovered her work at Epigram Arts Introducing and saw it exhibited at Bristol Art Society‘s ‘Nostaliga’ exhibition. Her work shows off an exciting, intimate relationship with colour.
Mairead talks of her “carefree, upbeat attitude to painting” which ensures that she steers clear from neutral colours. But it is not just the mood that colour evokes in her that encapsulates Mairead, the vibrancy is “a form of escapism”. She would much rather paint a dreamlike scene, immersed in imagination, than something realistic, in every-day colours.
I would say I interpret colour most strongly from a Reductive Realist perspective, and that the essence of colour is the process of different wavelengths of light. I don’t think there can be one definitive interpretation of colour, I would say it’s constructed on an individual basis.
Perception of colour is personal thing for Mairead, which I think is why she gravitates towards (A): Reductive Realism, not wanting to characterise colour as the same for everybody. With the Reductive Realist perspective, colour is the individual process of colour vision that is unique to the viewer. This perhaps explains individual, emotional responses to colour too. If colour is this scientific process then perhaps it also explains the chemical reactions in our brain forming emotional responses to colour.
How we interpret colour in our own way, our individual neurosignals, constitutes colour for Mairead, not an abstract, platonic form of each colour. For her, the components of our colour vision determines what a colour is, it is not something we reach out to, that already exists in the world. With #thatdress it is a difference in the mental process of colour vision that means different people see different colours, depending on how their brain distinguishes the relevant, lightwaves from others, such as sunlight.
When I wear the cheap sunglasses kept in my car, the traffic lights on green turn a bright blue; the filter on the sunglasses alters the scientific process of my colour vision and I see blue not green. I feel, like Mairead, that colour is an individual, subjective phenomenon. In this sense, colour is experienced only on an ‘individual basis’ but I am more inclined to think of colour as a phenomenon, experienced individually. I am curious whether I can convert Mairead’s desire to explain colour as an individual experience, into (C), a Realist perspective instead of (A), a Reductive one.
My experience of blue traffic lights, driving along in the sunshine, is very different to it’s cause. In my eyes the wavelengths of light sent from the traffic light, filtered through my sunglasses, retina and visual cortex do not equate to this phenomenal, luminous blue colour experience.
If you agree with me on this, then I think it entails a separation between colour vision and colour experience. The colour experience being the phenomenon and revelation of colour, colour vision as the means to achieve this colour experience, but not the same as this colour experience.
However, as I try and steer you towards this Realist thought about colour, there is one more question to leave you with.
Would colours exist if there were no eyes to see them?
Thank you Mairead, India and everyone else who has helped with #ThinkingInColour! Look out for my next colour post featuring an interview with paint manufacturer, Michael Harding.
If you have any responses please comment and use the hashtag #ThinkingInColour, I’d really like to see what everyone thinks.