Sunday, 29 April 2012

The Problem of Color

The Newtonian physics of the 17th Century was responsible for reviving the atomism of the Ancient Greeks. One of the main implications of the rise of Newtonian physics for Philosophy, was that many of the physical qualities traditional associated with material objects were taken to be mere products of the mind. The qualities of color, sound and scent were determined to be produced by the mind as the physics of the age showed that these qualities were not present in the objects themselves. Leading Philosophers of the time such as John Locke determined these to be secondary qualities, in virtue of them not being present in the object in itself. Leading many to conclude that outside of us, all that objectively exists is nothing but colorless, scentless atoms moving in empty space. 

Many philosophers contemporary and 20th Century philosophers have been deeply skeptical about this conclusion. Philosophers of this ilk have included Wittgenstein, Hacker and A.N Whitehead. Hacker stated that When we are not under the sway of the magic of philosophy and misconstrued natural science, we do not think that colours are but ‘sensations in the sensorium’, as Boyle and Newton claimed. On the contrary, we think that geraniums are red and delphiniums blue, and are amazed and baffled to be told that they are ‘in and of themselves’ without colour.” (Appearance and Reality p.38) Hacker's sentiment really gets to the heart of the question of color, that our experience of the world and how we talk about it radically diverges from the scientific account of the world. 

So is the world really colored or not? Is what perceive when we open our eyes in the morning and we witness the bright and vivid is an objective quality of the world or is it merely a product of the world. This issue has been highly debated ever since it received its first modern formulation in the writings of Locke. This leads us on what might be colored in the world, there have been multiple things that have been postulated as being colored. 

So What kind of things might be considered colored? 

  • Physical Objects - Almost always seem to be colored to humans. A few unusual cases such as transparency.
  • Light - Newtonian physics holds that light white is composed of the full color spectrum. 
  • The image - As it forms on the retina is experienced as colored. 
  • The experience of color in the brain - problematic seems to suffer from the homunculus fallacy and seems problematic from ontological point of view. 
  • Overall perceptual experience - almost always reported as colored except in cases of visual defects.
  • Memory Images - Sometimes thought to be in color. 
  • Dream Imagery - Appears to be in color or is at least reported to be in color. 
If color is indeed a feature of the physical world, it appears difficult locate it. It seems odd to talk about color being in the brain as it appears like we are positing the existence of a non physical entity within the physical realm. At the worst positing color in the brain seems to suffer from the homunculus fallacy supposing that their is a little man watching and observing our color experience within our mind. Locating color as a purely mental or neurological seems to lead to color subjectivity. Locating color somewhere within in the world seems to be a problematic issue for those who want to maintain color objectivism. 

Several different positions regarding color have emerged over the year, but these positions can be divided up into three main groups regarding how they view color. 

1. Complete Subjectivism/ The Illusion Theory of Color 
Color is simply a complete illusion and only exists in the mind of the perceiver as a mental experience. With color having no objective existence. One adherent of the Illusion Theory is Hobbes who stated that colors are mere phantasms in the brain. A more modern account of the Illusion can be found in Barry Maund (2006). Galileo also adheres to the Illusion Theory of Colour, stating that “Colours... so far as their objective existence is concerned, are nothing but mere names for something which resides exclusively in our sensitive body, so that if the perceiving creature were removed, all of these qualities would be annihilated and abolished from existence”. Sometimes Locke is also taken to be a complete subjectivist when it comes to color, but is often considered take a more of dispositionalist/moderate subjectivism when it comes to color. 

2. Moderate Color Subjectivism/ Dispostional Theory of Color 
On this view color as it we know only exists in our mind, but objects are colored in one particular sense. A colored item is colored in virtue of the micro physical properties, which have the disposition to produce certain color experience in perceiver under circumstances. Locke is more commonly held to hold this position. This appears to me to be the dominant position about the issue of color at the present time. 

3. Objectivism 
Color objectivist's hold that color is an objective feature of the world in a real and substantial sense. A Yellow flag is really Yellow in the way which the term is commonly or pre-conceptually understood. Their inherent qualities of the object represent the phenomenal experience which is perceived us. Objectivism is not particular popular and generally finds few relatively supporters in the modern age, but went under somewhat of a revival under the influence of ordinary language philosophy. Defenders of this position include Whitehead, Wittgenstein and PMS Hacker. 

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