Janie Cheaney: What is color?


MARY REICHARD, HOST: Today is Wednesday, March 21st. Good morning! This is The World and Everything in It from member-supported WORLD Radio. I’m Mary Reichard.

KENT COVINGTON, HOST: And I’m Kent Covington. Sometimes, what we humans perceive through our senses can trick us. Here with some thoughts on that is WORLD Radio’s Janie Cheaney.

JANIE CHEANEY, COMMENTATOR: Close your eyes and count to three. Then open them and focus on one stationary object.

Where’s the light coming from? Where are the shadows? What is the object’s depth—could you calculate it in inches or feet?

Finally: What color is it?

These appear to be questions about perception, but really they’re questions about philosophy. One of the very first philosophical problems is, if we perceive the world around us through our senses, can our senses be trusted?

The “Problem of Color” has plagued both scientists and philosophers for centuries—or that’s what Mazviita Chirimuuta says, in an online article called “The Reality of Color Is Perception.” The title seems obvious at first: Why, sure. Light reaches our eyes in wavelengths and the brain perceives those frequencies as color.

But does that mean there really is no such thing as “color”?

Scientific theories tend toward one of two options, the subjective or the objective. That is, color is either a brain phenomenon or it’s a light phenomenon. Or could it be both? That’s a third view, called the “relationist” theory.

Ms. Chirmuuta likes that idea: She writes, “Indeed, I argue, colors are not properties of minds, objects, or lights, but of perceptual processes—interactions that involve all three terms.” In that way, color perception is the same kind of phenomenon as consciousness itself. Quote, “[C]onsciousness is not confined to the brain but is somehow ‘in between’ the mind and our ordinary physical surroundings, and must be understood in terms of activities.”

Let’s say then that color is mind, object, and light. Three perspectives, one phenomenon that we associate with lilacs, sunsets, oceans, autumn.

Consciousness is mind, world, interpretation. Three perspectives, one process. St. Augustine, without the benefit of an electroscope, explained vision as eye, brain, correlation. Three perspectives, one function that most of us take for granted.

Object, word, meaning. Frequency, ear, music. Father, Son, Spirit—is anyone seeing a pattern here? Maybe I’m just being philosophical, but once you’ve adopted a Trinitarian Creator you see Him echoed everywhere.

In the comments section below the article, one snarky responder calls out “the arrogance of philosophers who don’t know their place as they are just pseudo scientists filling the valleys and cracks of ignorance.” As for that plaguey problem of consciousness, quote, “all philosophy has to offer there is confusion which will try to persist after inquisitive scientists have solved that puzzle too.”

Might be a long wait.

For WORLD Radio, I’m Janie B. Cheaney.


WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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