Wednesday, April 20, 2005


I'm not alone in noting the problem of colour perception I alluded to the other day. (Diana gets it.) We all have trouble properly naming shades of aqua and teal, but we can measure the light frequencies and agree on a definition. But how do we know if the experience of the colour is universal?

I remember Stephen Pinker in How the Mind Works briefly addressing this problem that has haunted me for decades, and dismissing it.

I've been scanning the pages, looking for a reference, and found this (p 146):

Might your experience of red be the same as my experience of green? Sure, you might label grass as "green" and tomatoes as "red," just as I do, but perhaps you actually see the grass as having the color that I would describe, if I were in you shoes, as red.

Pinker's answer to this and similar quandaries of subjective experience is "Beats the heck out of me!"

At least for now, we have no scientific purchase on the special extra ingredient that gives rise to sentience. As far as scientific explanation goes, it might as well not exist. It's not just that claims about sentience are perversely untestable; it's that testing them would make no difference to anything anyway.

And so he relegates this topic, and others, to late-night dorm-room bull sessions and similar forums.

There you have it. Do we really see the same colours? Who cares!

1 comment:

Ben said...

I've noticed that one of my eyes sees more into the red spectrum and the other more into the blue. The difference is only noticeable in certain lighting, but I always thought it was simply some sort of damage to my retinas. I recently read, however, that this difference between eyes actually assists with three-dimensional perception. So maybe I'm not such a freak after all.

Colour is fascinating stuff.

Incidentally, I hate aqua as a colour. It offends my eyes :)