Dressgate: Is Perception Reality?

March 12, 2015

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Philosophers are a maligned group these days. Neil deGrasse Tyson, for example, suggested that the paradigmatic philosophical question is not “Why is there something rather than nothing?” but “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” (Cute idea, in other words, but let’s not waste our time.)

So when the internet exploded into a full-blown panic over whether a dress was white and gold or black and blue, I know philosophers everywhere slept well that night. No one knew, because everyone was sure—but evenly split. Raw feels set sons against fathers, wives against husbands. “It’s obviously blue and black,” Taylor Swift tweeted. Another actress declared, “If that’s not white and gold, the universe is falling apart.”

Exasperated, people turned to neuroscientists for answers, finding little consolation. “A color only exists in your head,” explained one neuroscientist. “There’s such a thing as light. There’s such a thing as energy. There’s no such thing as color.”

So colors aren’t real qualities of things? But then, how does a secondary quality like color appear to me at all? What does it mean for color to exist in my head? Is it in my brain? Or in my consciousness? Is consciousness real? If not, how do we make sense of the feeling of seeing white and gold? Help us, philosopher man!

John Searle seems to have a point: other subjects make sense “only in relation to their philosophical implications.” In fact, there’s a sense in which philosophy is “the only subject.” Color is one of those unique cases where the inevitability of philosophy becomes apparent very quickly.

Vox.com sympathizes with the materialist position and concludes that, where the “mystery” of color and the brain is concerned, “it’s extremely likely that an explanation will be forthcoming.” Psychedelic futurist Jason Silva agrees that color is “not an objective feature of reality,” but argues that color does exist as part of the Cartesian “theater” of consciousness which “sits in our brain.”

Not unexpectedly, the rival positions of reductive materialism and substance dualism quickly come to the fore. For the former, color is a “trick” of the brain; for the latter, it’s the within the purview of incorporeal mind-stuff. For the former, we land in a strange kind of anti-realism about color; for the latter, color is shoved (with all other qualia) to the mind side of the body-mind divide.

But enough about color. The Independent made the interesting point that the “perception is reality” phenomenon of “Dressgate” is bigger than optics:

“You probably had an argument with a friend, colleague or stranger this morning about what colour the dress was. They said one combination, you said another—and then nothing happened.

Because there are some things that will never be objective. And since they’re not in the external world, you can never properly argue about them.

This is true, of course, of issues bigger than the dress. God, morality, truth: ultimately you can never convince anyone of anything about them, because your language can’t make reference to things that can’t be seen in the world (or so say some philosophers).”

In other words, the phenomenological quandary of Dressgate is a perfect analogy for a broader cultural situation. On ultimate questions—like Does God exist? How should I live? and What is truth?—we are sharply and intractably divided. We see what we see and can’t imagine how anyone could see it otherwise. We point to our picture of the world: “Look. That’s white. And that’s gold. Are you blind?” Another person points to the same world. “No. That’s blue. And that’s black. What’s wrong with you?” Our experience of the way the world is feels so immediate, so incorrigible, precisely because it’s our own.

From a bird’s eye view this certainly looks like relativism, but in reality, there are very few relativists. The great myth of the age is that we’re all happy to sit back and say: “Well, I guess what’s white and gold for you is black and blue for me, and that’s all there is to it.” We’re clearly not. We can’t do this with a stupid dress, much less God! We’re subjectivists, to be sure, but we believe that our “subjectivity is objective,” to quote Love and Death. We wouldn’t believe what we did if we thought it were just one viable path among many. Even when we’re modest (“well, of course I could be wrong”), ultimately we believe we’re more likely right than not.

So it goes with God, the good life, and truth. “All religions lead to the same God” is a truth claim that overrides all the truth claims of all those religions. Quantum indeterminacy would appear to create an atmosphere congenial to ethical relativism—yet, as CS Lewis pointed out, people are always quarreling and point to an external standard of fairness. “There is no objective truth” is self-refuting, because apparently there’s at least one objective truth. We can’t help but state a fact of the matter. The only apparent alternatives are skepticism (doubt) or agnosticism (ignorance). But the pressure to decide catches up to us eventually. We are already adrift on the sea of life; we need to believe and to know our belief is correct. How many people feverishly took to Google to find out what color the dress really is? Or looked up articles about what color really is, feeling a little freaked out by the whole thing?

Here’s the truth: the dress really is black and blue, even though it looks white and gold to me.

There is a fact of the matter about God and morality too. Like Dressgate, there’s real colors behind the divided perceptions. By the law of non-contradiction, not everyone can be right. Thankfully, where the autonomic processing of rods and cones is beyond our control and leaves little to debate, there are fascinating arguments about God and morality that we can tease out with our minds and respond to with our wills. More importantly, dialogue can change our perspective (if not our mind).

From a certain angle, the dress all of a sudden looked blue and black to me. I could see and appreciate the other side, if only for a second. It’s the same with dialogue. Argumentation is not a mere language game, and listening to other perspectives is not an exercise in futility. On the contrary, it’s one of most enriching activities there is.

In the end, though, whenever I get out of bed for the day, dialogue recedes into the background, and I have to make the choice for myself. “The search” in the ethical and religious domain is like a Google search for the color of the dress: I set aside what my lazy inclinations tell me and what others have shared and set out to find out what’s really the case. And while the colors of a dress have no bearing on our lives whatsoever, with this search—where the colors are life’s meaning—a change in perspective can change us forever.

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