Is your experience of colour different to your colour vision?

Take #thatdress… If one person sees blue and black in the photograph and another sees white and gold, can they both be right with their colour experience?
Wired magazine

Wired magazine

I’m sitting here with red fingernails, typing on a black keyboard, wearing a grey jumper with a blue mug of muddy brown coffee by my side. I wonder if each of those colours exists; if the red exists independently of the nail varnish, the blue from the china mug. Is colour actually a thing?

A Philosophy lecture at Bristol University has inspired me to further explore what colour actually is. My initial thoughts are best explained with confusion about how to pair the certainty that I am experiencing a colour, the phenomenon of it, with the knowledge that colour vision is a process resulting from lightwaves and neuro signals.

From secondary school, we are taught a simplistic model of colour vision: the rods and cones in the retina of our eyes are perceptive to lights of different wavelengths and there are three types of cones which are responsive to long, medium and short wavelengths. The cones convert the light that is reflected off objects into neural signals. Our colour vision is based on the neural outputs of the cones to our visual cortex. Normally, our brains filter out other lightwaves such as ordinary sunlight and illuminants so that we can correctly decipher colours. But with the case of #thatdress and those who see the dress as white and gold, myself included, our brains do not filter out these other lightwaves, so we experience the dress differently.

Have you ever wondered, though, how our basic understanding of colour vision fits with our experiences of colour? We usually think of colours existing as real things. I can distinguish an orange coloured orange from the concept of orange and I can distinguish blue paint from the concept of blue. I’ll call this perspective the colour experience phenomenon, different from the scientific explanation of colour vision, the perspective of rods, cones, lightwaves and neuro signals.

The purpose of my exploration is to understand these two perspectives: the phenomenon of colour experience and the science of colour vision, together.

The Philosophy

My Philosophy course has pointed me towards three very plausible ways to solve this dilemma: Realism, Reductive Realism and Eliminativism.

Option(A) Reductive Realism: colour is light waves

Colour is, in fact, light waves of varying lengths, interacting with the rods and cones in the retina of your eyes. ‘Blue’ is the interaction of short wavelengths of light with your eyes. Colour is what the scientific perspective describes and it is how colour exists. The essence of ‘blue’ is not how we end up perceiving it in our mind’s eye; this vibrant perspective is reduced to the wavelengths of light, reflected and processed.

 If you think that our ideas of colour and talk of colour concepts do not equate to reflected lightwaves, then you have the option B) to say that this concept of ‘colour’ is a fabricated concept, a device to talk about our experiences of colour vision. Or C) you might accept our colour experiences as an abstract, platonic sort of thing, with real existence.

Option (B) Eliminativism: ‘colour’ doesn’t exist, light waves do

The scientific explanation of colour vision shows that colours, as we talk about them, don’t exist; all that exists is the lightwaves, our retina, and visual cortex. No ‘red’, ‘blue’, ‘grey’ or ‘purple’ exists. On this view, the way we talk about colour is, in fact, false because when we see a vast array of ‘colours’, all we are experiencing is lightwaves of different lengths: not ‘colour’ as we experience it.

Option (C) Realism: colours exist independently to lightwaves in colour vision

Realists think that colour exists independently from the scientific explanation of colour vision. Our experience and talk of colour is proof that it is a phenomenon, and we experience the essence of a colour when we see or imagine it, which is different to reducing colour to existing as light waves interacting with rod, cones and neuro signals. This allows us to explain our perspective of colours as we see them, as real experiences because we do not have the same attitude towards ‘blue’ as we do to short wavelengths of light processed through our eyes into neuro signals.

Mairead Finlay

To get a second option, I’ve asked Mairead Finlay to take a stance on the philosophical issue. Finlay uses masses of colour in her dreamlike paintings and her work shows off an exciting, intimate relationship with colour. Is colour (A) the process of colour vision, (B) a fictional device to explain our responses to colour vision, or (C) a phenomenon that we experience, different to the colour vision process?


Mairead Finlay

Finlay talks of her “carefree, upbeat attitude to painting” which ensures that she steers clear from neutral colours. But it is not just the mood that colour evokes in her that encapsulates Finlay, the vibrancy is “a form of escapism”. She would much rather paint a dreamlike scene, immersed in imagination, than something realistic, in every-day colours.

I would say I interpret colour most strongly from a Reductive Realist perspective, and that the essence of colour is the process of different wavelengths of light. I don’t think there can be one definitive interpretation of colour, I would say it’s constructed on an individual basis.


Mairead Finlay

Perception of colour is a personal thing for Finlay, which I think is why she gravitates towards (A): Reductive Realism, not wanting to characterise colour as the same for everybody. With the Reductive Realist perspective, colour is the individual process of colour vision that is unique to the viewer. This perhaps explains individual, emotional responses to colour too. If colour is this scientific process then perhaps it also explains the chemical reactions in our brain forming emotional responses to colour.

How we interpret colour in our own way, our individual neuro signals, constitutes colour for Mairead, not an abstract, platonic form of each colour. For her, the components of our colour vision determine what a colour is, it is not something we reach out to, that already exists in the world. With #thatdress it is a difference in the mental process of colour vision that means different people see different colours, depending on how their brain distinguishes the relevant, lightwaves from others, such as sunlight.

When I wear the cheap sunglasses kept in my car, the traffic lights on green turn a bright blue; the filter on the sunglasses alters the scientific process of my colour vision and I see blue not green. I feel, like Finlay, that colour is an individual, subjective phenomenon. In this sense, colour is experienced only on an ‘individual basis’ but I am more inclined to think of colour as a phenomenon, experienced individually. I am curious whether I can convert Mairead’s desire to explain colour as an individual experience, into (C), a Realist perspective instead of (A), a Reductive one.

My experience of blue traffic lights, driving along in the sunshine, is very different to its causeIn my eyes, the wavelengths of light sent from the traffic light, filtered through my sunglasses, retina and visual cortex do not equate to this phenomenal, luminous blue colour experience.

If you agree with me on this, then I think it entails a separation between colour vision and colour experience. The colour experience being the phenomenon and revelation of colour, colour vision as the means to achieve this colour experience, but not the same as this colour experience.

However, as I try and steer you towards this Realist thought about colour, there is one more question to leave you with.

Would colours exist if there were no eyes to see them?

If you have any responses please comment and use the hashtag #ThinkingInColour, I’d really like to see what everyone thinks.


7 responses to “Is your experience of colour different to your colour vision?

  1. You wisely mention of our “talk of colour”, but I should like to emphasize it quite a bit more. For our answer as to what colour is (i.e., what the word refers to) will depend upon what sort of discourse we are engaged in.

    As I’m sure you know, it is common for philosophers to make a distinction between ‘ordinary’ (folk, commonsense) discourse and scientific discourse. The former employs pretheoretic concepts at least some of which are seemingly universal (e.g., basically everyone’s folk physics specifies the existence of concrete objects); the latter utilizes specially developed concepts that are defined within a specific theoretic body.

    Confusion often results when the same word (in the ordinary sense of the term) is associated with different concepts, particularly when some are ordinary, others scientific — as is the case with ‘colour’, ‘energy’, and so on.

    Applied to the issue at hand, the above perspective leads us to conclude that ‘colour’ in ordinary discourse means one thing, (probably roughly what you specify: that it is an “individual, subjective phenomenon” of a specific sort), while in scientific discourse it means another thing (also roughly what you specify: “a process resulting from lightwaves and neurosignals”). Thus, reductive and standard realism may both be true in different contexts, depending upon which concepts people have in mind when they utilize the word. I think that that is all there is to say on the matter, but I may be wrong.

    • Thanks so much for taking the time to comment.

      I do think you’re right about it being a matter of two separate concepts actually. I’ve been reading Hilary Putnam (‘The Nature of Mental States) for my new module and he notes that even though pain can be correlated with c-fibres firing. The whole concept of pain in our folk psychology, as you say, is different to the concept of a neural state of c-fibres firing causing pain.

      Do you not think, then, that a realist concept of colour acknowledges our colour sensations and experience and allows us to label colour as this inclusive concept, which is different to the process of colour vision, even though it ‘correlates with’ it as Putnam would say?

  2. Pingback: #Thinkingincolour: Part II | Thinking Hatt·

  3. Hi Nick,
    I’ve only just clicked that your wordpress blog is one I’ve used multiple times for article summaries during my Philosophy course. Your work is so helpful, thank you!!!

  4. Pingback: the filters; colour in a ‘techno-scientific world’ | Thinking Hatt·

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