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Man Sees Purple For The First Time... And Could Help Answer A Philosophical Question?

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Some really cool videos have been spreading around the internet, where people with colorblindness are given sunglasses that correct their color vision. One video in particular, shows a guy being given EnChroma sunglasses by “someone very special” (there’s a little bit of language in the video, as he’s so surprised about seeing color; you’ve been warned).

There’s a lot of science behind it, but before learning about how the glasses work, let’s learn a tiny bit about color blindness!

Color blindness doesn’t just mean you only see shades of grey (though that’s one of the many kinds!). Color blindness comes in all shapes and forms; deuteranopia, protanopia, tritanopia, and monochromacy (or achromia). Deuteranopia and protanopia are what we normally call red-green color blindness where these people have difficulty distinguishing between red and green. Both of them have experience shades of red as what we would experience shades of green, but deuteranopia dulls the color more and colors appear less saturated than in the experiences of someone with protanopia. Tritanopia is blue-yellow color blindness where where people afflicted with have difficulty distinguishing blue, yellow, green, and violet/pink. Monochromacy is what we normally think of when we think of a person only seeing in black and white, or different shades of grey. Using the examples from this website, look at what the different kinds of colorblindness can look like:

Color blindness happens when there’s something wrong with the cones in the eyes. They may absorb too much or too little of a certain amount of light, thus changing the way the color is perceived. Straight from the EnChroma website, “the L-cone absorbs too much of the green light (a condition called a PROTAN deficiency), or the M-cone absorbs too much of the red light (DEUTAN “doo-tan” deficiency).” EnChroma sunglasses basically the glasses bend light and make some colors more or less saturated when hitting the rods and cones. With protanopia, the sunglasses make the cones absorb less green light; with deutanopia, the sunglasses make the cones absorb less red light. So it all evens out, makes the colors appear more saturated and closer to the actual hues normal sighted people see when they experience color.

One of my absolute favorite philosophy thought experiments is Frank Jackson’s Knowledge Argument or “Mary’s Room” (if you want to read his academic journal articles on the topic, click here and here.) I believe color blindness and EnChroma can help be a real life example Frank Jackson’s thought experiment and that thinking about color blindness and EnChroma could possibly be evidence for the Jackson’s thought experiment.

In a nutshell, Frank Jackson thinks that the mind and body are distinct or that the mind is irreducible to the body. He thinks this because of what he calls qualia (pronounced qual-ee-uh) which is just a technical term for the “what it is like” of existence. Feeling hungry is qualia, emotions are qualia, seeing color is qualia, what it is like to be you is qualia; for all of these things you have your own subjective experience of what each thing is like, and only you can access this experience. He thinks that all the physical facts about the universe cannot give us facts about qualia. What this means is: even if we knew every single physical fact about the entire universe a person would still not know what it is like (for themselves and for others) to see experience qualia that they have not experienced themselves.

This sounds like a confusing, technical, and abstract idea, so when ideas like this seem abstract like this, philosophers like to come up with thought experiments “intuition pumps” to clarify the idea. To do this, Frank Jackson comes up with his Mary’s Room thought experiment.

Mary is a hypothetical person from the future who has lived in a black and white room her whole life. She hasn’t seen any color except black, white, and shades of grey (even her skin is somehow purely one of these colors). While in this room, she spends her days reading and watching (black and white) informative videos about the science of color. After studying for years, she finally has perfect knowledge of everything that goes into color perception; she understand the physics of color, the anatomy of the human body and its color perception, she knows everything about the brain and neurology of color perception, all of it. Then, Mary is given a bright red apple and for the first time in her life she sees red. (If you watched Ex Machina, the movie talked about this thought experiment briefly).

Using this thought experiment, Frank Jackson asks: before seeing the apple do you think Mary knew what it is like (for herself and others) to see red? Do you think she kew what experiencing red is like? This is different from, but related to, the question of whether she could imagine color. It’s possible that she could imagine the color or even dream in color if color parts of her brain aren’t dead or gone. But without ever having seeing red, do you think she would know what it is like to experience it based only on knowing all that science and physical facts?
You tell me. I think she wouldn’t though.

But you know who would be better situated to answer this question than people who have normal color vision and see colors every day? People who don’t experience all the colors (or any color), who then, after wearing EnChroma, are able to see the colors they haven’t been able to see. Colorblind people are like Mary in a way; their whole life (unless it was brought on by an injury) they have been kept from seeing certain colors. They have never experienced, say red, the way we experience red. Would they know what it is like to see red? If we taught them everything about the physics of color, the anatomy of the human body and its color perception, she knows everything about the brain and neurology of color perception, and so on, would they know what it is like to see red?

If they’ve really never ever seen some color, they’d be surprised when they saw the color, like the person in the video above who’d never seen purple before. “Is that purple?!” That’s what it looks like?! Seeing color seems like something that can only be understood through experience—if you haven’t experienced it then you won’t really fully understand what it’s like no matter how much science you know.

It’s like, imagine what it’s like to see the infrared and ultraviolet spectrum (snakes, bats, bugs). We sort of have picture simulations of what that may look like—but the pictures are all in color. We have to translate how that might look into how we see the world: in color. But things that sense the world through thermal vision don’t see the world in color like we do. The color spectrum is completely separate from the infrared and ultraviolet spectrum, so the ‘colors’ may very well not be anything at all like the colors we see.

I want input from people with color blindness, especially the person in the video I shared in here! So let’s share this article so color blind people can see it! Tell me what you think about the Mary thought experiment in the comments. Do you think people could know what it is like to experience/see color without ever seeing it before, based solely on knowing all the physical science behind it?

The unexamined life is not worth living. - Socrates

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