Colors, patterns and the properties of not existing

There two ways of figuring out the world around us. One way is determining the structure of materiality itself, the stuff around us: we feel how hard a substance is, how much it weighs, and our observations 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.” That’s the first way we tend to navigate the material world.

The second way — using the same brain that figured out the weight and mass of the object — is to see that the substance we are holding in our hand has a color. Let’s say what we have our hands is kinda pink.

the color magenta

In actuality, the atoms that give the thing in our hands its weight and mass are not themselves pink. We see pink, but color is not part of the material world; color is part our phenomenological experience of the world.

What is Color?

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 refers to the aggregate of wavelengths that first bounces off an object before getting to your eye, like the color represented in a leaf. Reflective light follows the subtractive color model: source light (like sunlight) comes in contact with the particles of an object (in this example, a leaf) and some of the wavelengths are absorbed — or subtracted — 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 the leaf’s case, a shade of green. The reflective or subtractive paradigm is in play when you look at a painting made of pigments: the molecular structures of the various metals in the pigments are absorbing source light and reflecting back the resulting frequencies, appearing as color in your mind.

  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

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. Transmissive light follows the additive color model: that is, the source light itself emerges from the black nothingness by combining — or adding — 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.2

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 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’s created entirely in the mind, which helpfully puts something “out there” that is not even out there.1

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 see color, what survival purpose for humans does the ability to see color provide? 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?

If a bug with different eyes and different senses experiences the plants in our yard differently than we do, are we both sensing the same reality? Or, instead, is our interpretation of what’s “out there” simply a helpful heuristic created by our mind that allows to us navigate the material realm as if we are experiencing what we experience, but in actuality what we experience in our mind is only a useful metaphor — a collection of symbols, impressions and artifacts of pattern recognition?

Plato’s Allegory of the Cave has come to represent this dichotomy between the world we perceive, and the world as it may actually be.3 In the allegory, prisoners chained to the floor of a cave face a wall from which they cannot turn. Their heads are bound, preventing them to look anywhere but at the wall, on which they see the shadows cast by puppeteers, creating shapes in front of a fire that the captives cannot perceive. For the prisoners, the only world known to them is the world of the shadows. They become adept a identifying shapes (that one is a tree, that one is dog), become skilled at determining the 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. 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 an impression of a dog created by the hands of the puppeteers. It is not until Plato frees one of the prisoners and takes him outside the cave — into the light he has never known — does the prisoner see the world for the first time, as it truly is.

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.4 What we experience is the result of appearances whose existence occurs only in representations. Actuality is perceivable but ultimately unknowable.

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

Taken in aggregate, ancient notions like Plato’s Allegory of the Cave and contemporary studies of quantum physics are not so far off from each other. We just keep discovering new ways of finding the same ideas.

The experience of magenta is just one of the multiple illusory phenomena of the mind, subtle hints that — though we have come far — we should be very careful in congratulating ourselves too greatly, looking down on those before us for not living at the edge of history as we are. For even if our scientific age brings us cell phones and can take us to the moon, we may be skilled in only making very accurate observations of the shadows we see.

Last updated May 30, 2022


1 Mould, Steve. "The Curious Case of Magenta." Steve Mould (blog). October 23, 2009. Accessed December 14, 2015.

2 Numerical observations about the internal structure of an atom reveal that the orbits of electrons correspond to spectral lines (lines of transmissive color) associated with each element — like the yellow glow of sodium vapor. The philosophical the side-effect of this phenomenon is that we get an intuitive way to understand the simultaneous wavelike and particlelike aspects of matter. For more information, refer to:
Marshall, Bruce, et. al. Who’s Afraid of Schrödinger’s Cat. Quill William Morrow, New York, 1997.

3 Duignan, Brian. "What is the meaning of Plato’s Cave?" Britannica Beyond. Revised January 20, 2020. Accessed May 20, 2022.

4 Kant, Immanuel. "Critique of Pure Reason", 1781. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Accessed May 20, 2022.