We all know that a painting or a word ‘beautiful’ can have a different subjective meaning for different people. But, what about colors? Assuming we both are not color blind and we have perfect vision, do you think we both see a particular color in the same way? Most people would say a thundering ‘Yes’ to this question. But, philosophers and scientists say that they don’t have an answer to this question. But, how can that be? – after all, we both are able to pass the color blind tests and we both can agree that something looks red.
I first bumped into this question when I heard Richard Dawkins mention in an interview that “I cannot know how you see the color Red“. At first, I couldn’t really absorb what is he saying, because I thought that red is the same color (same wavelength of light) for all of us, except for the color-blind people. So, how can somebody with a normal vision not see red as red. But, as I thought more about it, I really understood what he meant. You and I can look at a color and agree that it is ‘Red’, but we cannot understand if your perception of ‘Red’ is the same as my perception of ‘Red’. This is a classic problem of the inability to exchange your experience.
I will try to explain this with an example. Let us say that when I see this text, my mind is actually seeing it as this text and identifies it as the color ‘red’. On contrary, when you see this text, your mind actually sees it as this text and identifies it as the color ‘red’. Both you and me agree and label correctly that this text is red in color, but how we experience red is very different. At this point, you might have already understood the reason behind this problem. Colors are nothing but labels for the reality that our mind constructs out of different wavelengths of light. Just because we are agreeing on the label, doesn’t mean we are having the same construction of the reality in our mind. Nobel Prize winning physicist, Erwin Schrodinger says: Scientists and philosophers call this individualized experience as Qualia. Dawkins has written a nice post on this topic: Sky-blue-pink. A colour never before seen. He talks about why it is close to impossible to express what a color blue looks like to somebody who has never seen the color blue, and the impossibility to imagine a color that you’ve never seen. Everything that you experience in life is a construction of your mind and is a self made reality. Here is a very nice YouTube video on this topic. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=evQsOFQju08 Thanks