The dress is neither blue nor white

There’s currently a heated debate as to whether a particular dress is blue and black, or white and gold, with different people reporting that they perceive different colors. From the New York Times to Wired, every media outlet is publishing an account of the phenomenon, attempting to resolve the apparent paradox by appealing to how our visual system operates. However many seem to succumb to a kind of dualism in their efforts.

In the Times article, Jonathan Mahler discusses the seemingly insoluble problem, only to offhandedly remark that “The dress, as we all now know, is blue and black.” Adam Rogers of Wired also enters the debate, interviewing scientists and analyzing an image of the dress, only to conclude (perhaps facetiously) that “The people who see the dress as white are utterly, completely wrong.”

That there’s even a dispute at all reveals more about our intuitions on how the world works than how we perceive the dress. Indeed the entire paradox seems to dissolve if we accept that things do not actually have a color.

Most people would probably concede that nature does not construe some roughly cylindrical object, made of ceramic and attached to a loop, as a coffee mug. A coffee mug is a coffee mug because, in part, of how we use it. To nature, it’s not a coffee mug, nor is it even an object. Nature, we will concede, is not a person and doesn’t possess a mind, so such questions are essentially meaningless.

Similarly, notions such as how your toothbrush perceives the toothpaste you place upon it — whether the toothbrush believes it to be cold or moist or smooth — do not even arise. We all acknowledge the absurdity of such questions.

And yet, for some reason, many think it’s perfectly sensible to talk about what color an object really is, as if color were a property of things in themselves, as opposed to a product of the mind. We tend to assume that there’s some thing out there that’s interacting with our mind to produce these sensations. But in principle, the sensations may be induced by Descartes’ evil demon or a scientist with an electrode. Which of these is true, if any, doesn’t particularly matter for our purposes.

It’s easy to imagine a world where, upon being met with light of some wavelength, half the people perceive yellow, and the other half purple. If the difference in perception amounts to some innocuous difference between their visual systems, it would only be abusive for one to insist that the color in question is really what they say it is, and that the other is mistaken. One could formulate no rational argument for such a conclusion. We could ask how such differences exist, and perhaps learn something about the structure of our visual systems along the way, but there would be no coherent question as to the true color. A person could only conclude that they see yellow or purple, and accept that others seem to perceive a different color.

Thankfully, our brains are more similar than they are different, so communication is not altogether impossible. Even if sometimes it may appear so.