The Mystery of Color




The Mystery of Color



How does color come into the world? Not color experience but color itself—the color properties of objects. How do things come to be red, say? Not by virtue of their intrinsic objective properties, since things are not intrinsically and objectively colored. Shape properties (among others) come into the world in virtue of the nature of physical objects, but color properties are not like that (they are “secondary” not “primary” properties). Let us say that colors don’t have a “worldly genesis”, unlike shape. Then the obvious suggestion is that they have a mental genesis: they come into the world in virtue of the mind that apprehends the world. The explanation of the fact that objects are colored is that we see them as colored—that is how colors come to be, what they “emerge” from. They don’t come from objects themselves, or from nowhere, but from our peculiar mode of sensibility. Thus we resolve the mystery of the origin of color. As Hume famously put it, the mind spreads color on the world, paints it in qualities of its own devising; or as people nowadays say, we project color onto the world. Colors emanate from inside us, but we project them outward, thus creating a world of colored objects. Mystery removed.

            But we should scrutinize this idea of spreading or projecting more carefully: do we really understand what it means? The most obvious interpretation of it is that the mind has certain properties that it attributes to things outside it, as in primitive animism or anthropomorphism. It transfers properties from itself to things beyond, making external what is originally internal. Why it would do this is a question, since it appears to involve a rather grotesque error, but the suggestion is that the mind has a natural tendency to spread itself. Perception is an exercise in self-projection: we see the world according to our own mental nature. But this picture faces an obvious problem: the mind is not itself colored. Our perceptual experiences are not red or blue or purple; rather, they represent external things as red or blue or purple. We don’t experience our experiences as colored; we experience the external world as colored. Nor could they be colored because then they would have to have properties of extension such as size and shape. If I see a red sphere, I do not have an experience that itself red and spherical. So there is no property of my mind that could be the basis for the projection we are contemplating. Note that we don’t project the property of experiencing color onto objects—that would be a case of genuine projection; we are supposed to project color itself from the inside to the outside—yet we don’t instantiate color properties on the inside. It would be bizarre if we projected color experience onto objects; the error would be only too obvious. But we don’t do that when we see colors; so what we see is not a property of mind. True, the mind represents color perceptually, but that is not the same as the mind’s being colored.

            Why not say that the mind projects what it represents, as opposed to instantiates? The idea would be that objects are not objectively colored, but the mind has the capacity to depict the world as colored from within its own resources. The problem with this is that it presupposes that color properties already exist—as objects of representation, if not as prior properties of objects. But where did the property come from? Not from external objects and not from internal properties of experience; so it seems to come from nowhere. The property exists and we can get it in our mental sights, but it has its origin neither in the external realm nor the internal. Its existence is mysterious, unexplained, perplexing. Where did it come from? It seems like it belongs to a third realm, neither mental nor physical (nor abstract). We don’t find the property in external objects as an antecedent existence but nor do we sense it in ourselves (like pain or pleasure): it is a worldly property that comes neither from external reality nor from projection of our own nature as psychological beings. It is neither discovered out there nor projected from in here. So the two most natural theories of its origin don’t work. Nor is it remotely plausible to suggest that brain properties form the origin of color properties, since the brain does not have the colors possessed by external objects, being mainly grey: we don’t have red neurons whose properties we attribute to (intrinsically colorless) things outside! The color red appears to be instantiated neither by the mind (or brain) nor by external objects considered independently of the mind. Objects are colored but not in virtue of their intrinsic nature or the projective powers of the mind (if there are such powers). The whole idea of projection was contrived to explain how objects manage to be colored without being so in themselves, but it faces insuperable problems of intelligibility, given that the mind is not itself colored. So we are in the presence of a classic philosophical conundrum: there seems to be a fact (objects are colored) that has no explanation. We are confronted by a mystery, analogous to other mysteries (e.g. consciousness). Colors ought not to exist, but they do.

            Various responses are conceivable, and they run the usual gamut. We could favor a reductionist theory that claims colors to be reducible to physical properties of objects, so that their origin is the same as other properties, i.e. the actual nature of things. Or we could declare colors to be pseudo-properties, so there is nothing to explain: when we see things as colored we don’t really see them to have properties, as we do for things like size and shape, but rather we reify in some way our subjective responses. We have visual sensations in response to objects but these sensations don’t involve any represented properties; we then mistakenly construe our responses as involving properties of objects. Third, we might claim that experiences do actually instantiate color properties but in a special way: they may be said to be “reddish” or to occur “redly”. There is thus enough red in them to provide an adequate basis for projection (plus modification). Fourth, we might opt for radical ontological inflation: color properties exist in a realm of their own, accessible by the mind, and don’t need to be explained in terms of anything else. They don’t exist in virtue of the inherent nature of objects nor by some kind of projective mental act; they exist in their own right, primitively and inexplicably. Fifth, we might be tempted by a supernatural explanation: God bestows these properties on objects for our use and entertainment, so their origin is divine. We gaze at objects and God intervenes to implant colors in those objects, thus obviating the need for human projection.  [1]

I won’t discuss these different theories, merely noting the familiarity of the theoretical landscape; my point is that we are confronted by a mystery of a standard philosophical type. I will say that none of the proffered positions is terribly attractive, so we are left with a real mystery whose solution is elusive. It is genuinely puzzling how the world comes to contain colors: they weren’t there all along and the mind is incapable of conferring them; so their existence is problematic. What makes the world colored?  [2]


Colin McGinn 

  [1] A determined theologian might see here an argument for the existence of God: the only way for objects to be colored is for God to be the author of their existence, since minds and objects can’t do the trick. Whenever we see a red object we are seeing God at work.

  [2] Imagine if the objective world lacked shape properties and yet we perceived objects as having shapes. It would be hard to maintain that we project such properties from mind to world, given that the mind doesn’t have shape. This would present a real puzzle: how can there be shape properties attributed to objects if objects don’t have shape and shape cannot be derived from the mind? Where would these properties come from? They would seem to be invented from nothing.

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