color, metaphor and the paradox of not existing

A lineup of acrylic paints, with the color magenta. Or is it?

There are two ways of figuring out the world around us.

In the first way, empirically, we determine the structure of materiality itself — the quantifiable stuff around us. We feel how hard a substance is, how much it weighs and what it is made of. These observations will tell us something about the material world. We can assess an object’s structure and mass, and come up with a truth about what’s “out there” (the world outside our mind).

The second way is a phenomenological approach — using the same brain that figured out the weight and mass of that object, we now see that the substance in our hands has a “color.” Let’s say what we have is kinda pink.

the color magenta

From an empirical standpoint, we’ve determined that this thing we have in our hands has weight and substance, so we infer it is made up of atoms. But the atoms that give the thing its weight and mass are not themselves pink. The atoms do not emit “pinkness.”[1] We see pink, but the color is not part of the material world — color is part our phenomenological experience of the world.

what is color?

Visible light spectrum experiment:
prisms, electromagnetic spectrum, wavelengths 380 to 750 nm, 790–400 terahertz
via davidsancar

Visual “colors,” as we understand them, are not physical objects on a rainbow per se, but are actually symbols created in our minds as the brain interprets the wavelengths perceived by the photoreceptor cells of the eye. The visible part of the wavelengths are detected from frequencies mixed “out there” in the world by way of two primary attributes: reflective light and transmissive light.

  Reflective Light Transmissive Light
   ☇☇ ☼ ☼ ➙ 
Color Model subtractive additive
Color Primaries cyan, magenta and yellow
red, green and blue
Use Cases inks on paper;
painting on canvas
projection on screen;
images on a computer monitor

Reflective light refers to the aggregate of wavelengths that first bounces off an object before getting to your eye, like the color represented in a leaf. Transmissive light, on the other hand, is the wavelength of electromagnetic energy emitted by the source light itself, like the light from the sun before it hits the leaf.

Reflective light comes in contact with the particles of an object (in this example, a leaf) and some of the wavelengths are absorbed by the molecular structure of the chlorophyll. The unabsorbed wavelengths are reflected back into the world containing only the frequencies of the visible color that reaches your eye, in this case a shade of green.

With transmissive light, the source light itself emerges from the black nothingness and combines color frequencies in proportion to the aggregate of the resulting color. This is happening right now as you read this computer monitor. The brain interprets the frequency of this electromagnetic energy and assigns colors associated with that wavelength. The projected light is received directly in the eye and perceived by the brain without having bounced off something.

the nonexistence of magenta

But is it actually color that you see?

Wavelength or frequency itself is not color, even in the so-called visible spectrum. Instead, the mind assigns a symbol to represent the wavelength in your brain. That symbol is interpreted as color. The wavelengths received in the retina are interpreted by the brain, and the brain “shows you” color. That is the structure of our world — much of it is not material but rather phenomenological. Much of it is actually, literally, all in our heads.

In fact, when the mind does not have a symbol to associate with the particular wavelength, it just makes one up. A classic example of this phenomenon is the color magenta. Magenta is not a really color. It is an extra-spectral “substitute” for a wavelength that the mind thinks should be there, but that does not actually exist in the visible light spectrum. It is not on the rainbow. It’s the brain’s attempt to complete a pattern, to connect red on one end of the visible spectrum with violet on the other. It a phenomenological construct. It’s created entirely in the mind, which helpfully puts something “out there” that is not there.[2]

Here is our “pink,” again. Only this time, we understand that the color is actually magenta.

the color magenta
Can you see this?
OK, then, where is it in the spectrum?
Visible light spectrum experiment:
prisms, electromagnetic spectrum, wavelengths 380 to 750 nm, 790–400 terahertz
via davidsancar

what magenta tells us about the world

Why do we, as humans, see the world in color, instead of just black and white? Since not every animal around us can actually see color, what survival purpose for humans does the ability to see color provide? What is its evolutionary value? If assigning a mental symbol to a wavelength is a characteristic of an advanced brain, then why can’t we perceive ultraviolet wavelengths, like bees do?[3]

If a bug with different eyes, who has a different brain and different senses — who experiences the plants in our yard differently than we do, who is getting by just fine with her 5,000 ommatidia instead of eyes,[4] — if we are both “looking” at the same flower, are we both sensing the same reality? Or, instead, is our interpretation of what’s “out there” only a helpful heuristic created by our own mind that allows to us navigate the material realm as if we are experiencing what we experience, but in actuality what we experience is only a useful metaphor — a collection of symbols, impressions and artifacts of pattern recognition?

The bee has her metaphor. We have ours.

In Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, prisoners chained to the floor of a cave face a wall from which they cannot turn. Their heads are bound, preventing them to look at anything but the wall. On the wall they see shadows. These shadows are cast by puppeteers at a fire behind the prisoners. The prisoners cannot understand the fire, because they’ve never seen fire. They cannot know the concept of “puppeteers,” either. Only the shadows are their world; the shadows dance in various shapes on the wall. For the prisoners, this is the only world known to them, this world of the shadows.

Over time, the prisoners become adept a identifying shapes (“that one is a tree,” “that one is dog”). Some become skilled at determining patterns that occur (“a dog approaching from the left is always preceded by a cat”), and congratulate themselves when they make accurate predictions based on their observations. They exude confidence at their knowledge, of their grasp of the world. But in actuality, what they think is a dog, is not an actual dog. It is not even the shadow of an actual dog. It is only the idea of a dog, created by the hands of puppeteers, the world of shadows. It is not until Plato frees one of the prisoners and takes him outside the cave — into the light the prisoner has never known — does the prisoner see the world for the first time, as it truly is.[5]

Subsequent philosophers, such as Descartes and Kant, also conclude that we cannot have a purely direct experience of the world around us. Our experience of a thing is not the ding an sich, the thing-in-itself.[6] What we experience is the result of appearances, whose existence occurs only in representations. Actuality is perceivable but ultimately unknowable.

Science, too, has begrudgingly come to a similar take. While both relativity theory and quantum mechanics assure us that there can be an empirical objective reality “out there” (that the world we perceive is not created entirely in our solipsistic mind), it is most likely a far different reality from what we actually experience. In special relativity, there is a separate space-time for any given observer in its relation (its relativity) to the other observer.[7] And in quantum mechanics, the world “out there” is made not of empirical certainties, but only probabilities from which we collapse only one perspective, only one interpretation from a multiplicity of possible and partial viewpoints.[8]

of magenta, of bee-ing and time

The experience of magenta is just one of the multiple illusory phenomena of the human mind.[9] Taken in aggregate, we are left with a question: does our brain’s ability to conjure the color magenta — which is not really there — give us an easy feeling that we actually know what’s going on?

Really old notions like Plato’s Allegory of the Cave and really new ideas like quantum physics are not so far off from each other. We just keep discovering new ways of finding the same conclusion.

Our perception of the color magenta hints at an idea, that — though we have come far — we should be very careful in congratulating ourselves. Nor should we, in our “understanding” of what we perceive as the world, look down on those who came before us, with their supposedly outdated notions of the way the world works.

Because even if our scientific age brings us cell phones powered by quantum mechanics, and aeronautics that can take us to the moon, we may be skilled in only making very accurate observations of the shadows on the wall.

Posted May 30, 2022
Last updated October 29, 2023