Metaphysics of Colour

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Are colours objective or subjective, or both?

Our visual perception of the world contains colours. Our understanding of colour is related to other facets of what we visually perceive. Our theory of colour can help to understand other theories and concepts. For this reason it is important to come to a conclusion about the objectivity or subjectivity of colour.

The most important question that needs to be asked in regards to this topic is “Are physical objects, independent of perceivers experiences, coloured?” For example, if there is no one present to look at and perceive a red tomato, is that tomato still red? Or further still, if there is someone present, yet they have never experienced the colour red, is it still correct to describe the tomato as red? Coming to conclusions about these questions will help us come to a conclusion about the subjectivity or objectivity of colour.

One important issue that must be discussed is the conflict between common sense and science in regards to colour theory. Common sense informs us that all physical objets are coloured. Physics informs us that all physical objects are made up of smaller particles such as atoms, and these smaller particles do not physically possess colour. Many physicists, such as Galileo, take this to mean that an object that one may see as green, does not actually possess any physical property that can be known as green. But this seems inconsistent with our normal, common sense view of colour. It does not seem possible that every object we see as coloured, does not actually possess that colour in any form. This potential paradox can be clearly illustrated as following: 1 Physical objects are coloured

2 Physical objects are made up of smaller scientific particles 3 Smaller scientific particles do not possess colour
Many theories and strategies have emerged which attempt to reconcile these issues. They can be grouped together as either objective or subjective theories of colour.

The first theory of colour I will address is objectivity. Objective theories hold that colour is independent of perceivers, regardless of whether or not there is someone present to perceive the coloured object. Colour exists within the real-world. Within objectivity two different theories have been formulated which address the above claims in different ways.

The first objective theory asserts that common sense (1) and science (3) are not compatible. Instead they each provide valid ways to analyse a concept. This theory dismisses the distinction between primary and secondary properties, and therefore places colour in the same domain as size or shape. This means that colour becomes an irreducible quality of an object, rather than a quality that can be referred to in other more basic scientific terms (e.g. as light waves). This theory holds that both (1) and (3) are true, but because they operate on different levels there is no paradox. This, to me, seems too easy. Rather than address the paradox, it simply dismisses it. In order for this theory to hold it would seem that (2) would have to be disregarded. Yet it is not coherent to state that objects are not made up of scientific particles.

The second objective theory asserts that it is possible to reduce colours to a combination of interacting primary properties. This addresses the original conflict by altering the common sense view of colour, (1). It is not that objects are inherently coloured, but that a series of interactions of the physical properties of an object cause colour. This is elaborated in two ways.

The first way is to ascribe colour to reducible physical properties. For example, describing colour as the reflection/refraction of different wavelengths of light from objects. Many physically based theories of colour encounter issues with scientific theory and evidence. Another issue raised by this theory is the role that the perceiver plays in the perception of colour. For example, if the colour blue is...
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