Wednesday, June 10, 2009

True Colors

I’m a terrible dresser. But I’m a great blame-shifter, and my dressing problem is not entirely my fault. My pants and shirt today matched perfectly at home, in my walk-in closet; but then in front of my class earlier they didn’t match at all. I could solve the practical problem, of course, by simply holding my class in my walk-in closet. But that wouldn’t solve the philosophical problem.

What color is this shirt hanging in my closet, anyhow? I’ll say blue, which is about the best I can do with my very limited color vocabulary. I’ll still call it blue when I’m standing outside, at noon, on a sunny day, in Connecticut, in spring, even though even I can see that its color looks slightly different here than it did in the closet. And I’ll still call it blue under the fluorescent lights of my classroom, though it now looks nothing like the pants that matched its color in my closet. My limited color vocabulary can’t mask the fact, however, that this damn shirt keeps changing colors on me.

Or does it? Nothing about the shirt has changed, after all; it’s the same shirt. How can it have changed colors, when it hasn’t changed at all? Maybe I should just say that it appears different colors to me, in these different viewing contexts. The shirt isn’t changing, in other words; it only looks like it is.

But now if it looks like the shirt is changing colors, when it isn’t, then some of my perceptions must be wrong. The shirt looked different in three different contexts, above, so at least two of those perceptions must be wrong. And since it would, in fact, look different in many other contexts, maybe all three of those perceptions were wrong. Maybe, in fact, I’ve never even seen the true color of the shirt!

But wait--why believe the shirt even has a true color? To believe that it does is to believe that one of the many viewing contexts is correct while all the others are wrong. But which one is the “true context”? We’re naturally inclined to say that my dimly lit closet is not it, but why, exactly, should we privilege, say, the sunlight over the closet? What about the fact that how the shirt looks at noon, in spring, in Connecticut, on a sunny day, might be very different from how it looks at 4 pm, in the fall, on a hazier day, or in Alaska? Or why not say that fluorescent light is an improvement on sunlight, and that it lets us see the true color?

It seems to me we should give up the idea that my shirt--or other physical objects--have a “true” color. In fact we should give up the idea that objects have any colors at all. Think about it: Bodies are made up of atoms, which in turn are made up of little particles like electrons. But nobody thinks that electrons have any colors! And how can something have a color if everything it is composed of does not?

To the contrary, we should say that colors are not in objects but only in the minds of perceivers. That way we don’t have to decide which single viewing context gives us the “true” color, because there is none. Rather, we can say, in effect, that objects have every color they appear to have, in their different contexts. My shirt does not have a true color--but only true colors.

Now let’s get out of this closet.

No comments:

Post a Comment