The science and the philosophy of colours

Ashley asked:

First of all, thank you for this! My question is regarding the philosophy of colours. What is the use of having a philosophical account of colours if science already has an explanation to the nature of colours, or explanation as to why we experience them? Also, why is it important that in any philosophical account of colours, we must preserve the common sense view of colours (common sense reflection tells us that objects ARE coloured, objects have colour). Why is this so important? Couldn’t we just say that our common sense views can sometimes be wrong? I mean isn’t it known in the philosophical landscape that some common sense views are deceiving?

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

Too many presuppositions for such a short question! What makes you say that science ‘already’ has an explanation of colours and why we experience them? It has no such thing. Whatever you read (providing you understood it) must have led you up a garden path. But I think you probably misread, because any proper science text would tell you that colours do not exist. Therefore the question does not concern colours as such, but why we humans see colours when (objectively) there are none.

So now that we have cleared this up, we can start with a differentiation such as you seem to be asking for. Philosophy sought an answer to this dilemma centuries before there was any science. For instance Th. Hobbes said exactly the same thing as I just did about 400 years ago. What science achieved was basically the knowledge that our colour vision formed itself on the basis of certain radiant energy emanating from the Sun which is was important for humans to understand. Since everything we see involves the reflection of sunlight, it was a survival advantage for us to be able to see certain phenomena in a certain way, that is, in colours. Essentially therefore colours inform us about objects in the world which we would otherwise have great difficulty discerning properly. This is neither deception nor illusion: it is survival necessity. Hence it not ‘common sense’ to dismiss colour vision, but plain nonsense.

When you prick your finger with a needle you have a pain. No arguments. But the pain also does not exist, any more than colour does. It is merely another species of energy travelling up a nerve. So you need to put your dismissive tone of voice away, because as a human being, you need colour vision just as you need a pain sense. To be a human being means that you need some means of orienting yourself in the world to avoid becoming extinct; and colour vision as well as pain are pretty good techniques to help us along!

Philosophy comes in where science cannot make sense of things at all. Namely: why we feel pleasure or displeasure seeing certain colour combinations. This also has something to do with survival values, although it goes back so many generations that we’ve basically lost track of it. But if you take as an example that some berries have colours that act as a warning of poison, whereas others have inviting colours, making you want to eat them, you would be on the right track. It is suggestive to think that therefore our ancestors used ‘friendly’ colours to adorn themselves and their homes, and painted their enemies (human and animal) in ‘unfriendly’ colours. All art thrives on deep-seated instincts of this kind.

But the proof of the pudding is in the eating. I suggest you start wearing colour-eliminating glasses, so that you see everything in black and white. Black and white is plain sailing: either there is light or there is none. See how far you get without bumping into things, mistaking hundreds of things for what they really are. It’s as good a cure I can think of for all those people who harbour the illusion that colours are intrinsically deception! Good luck with your experiment!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.