When I first started teaching color theory, subjective relational was one of the toughest to make fun for my students. There are a lot of problems, to my way of thinking, about this approach and we'd get about mid-way through the discussion and I'd look out at a sea of glazed faces and find myself thinking that I didn't really blame them.
And then I watched season one of Marvel's Daredevil and found myself so nuts over the not so-subtle metaphysical argument buried in it that I was saying to friends when asked about it; "OMG so anti-subjective relational, right?!" To which, I'd get what I lthink of as "that look" in response. We'll come back to Wilson and why this is painting is so perfect for this show in a minute. First we have to understand a bit about subjective relational color metaphysics. (For a quick review of the different schools I'll be discussing over the next few months see my previous post.)
There are a few different schools that fall under the subheading of subjective relational because like any school of thought the argument is imperfect which leads to splintering of groups to try and explain the inconsistencies.
We'll start with the first school--dispositinal theory. These folks believe that colors are disposed to cause a color. The easiest way to think of this is in terms of our own behaviors. I don't like small spaces so I am disposed to be claustrophobic in elevators. So the red crayon is disposed to being red.
Anyone who has ever taking a philosophy class can instantly see the problem of defining something by itself. The crayon is red because it was disposed to be red. Still doesn't really explain WHAT it means to be red. So the dispositionalist takes it a step further and says that experiential data is what tells us it is red. In other words, we know that red is red not just because it is red, but because it is NOT green. After a lifetime of seeing objects disposed to be red and not anything else, we look at a red apple and see what is disposed to be there; the color red.
I can agree with, in theory, this thought. We've all played the game "One of these things is not like the others" and its easy to see the basis of sorting all information is differentiation. That this is NOT that. The color is disposed to be red in relationship to all the objects around it which are simultaneously disposed to NOT be red. So red exists simultaneously as a unique object that is inherently red and also dependent upon the existence of things that are NOT red.
But here is where the worm, for me, turns a bit. The dispositionalist would say that the red crayon causes us to see red ALL the time. In order for this to be true we'd have to ALL agree that red is always red. To everyone, in every conceivable environmental setting. The red crayon becomes something of a universal constant.
And there goes my skeptical eyebrow again....
They get around this by adding the caveat that in "standard viewing conditions" red is red.
But for that to work, you need two things:
- A group with the same set of responses.
- Conditions that are truly standard.
If I were to give you five minutes you could probably come up with at least 10 examples of these assumptions being problematic. But here is where Daredevil comes back into our story. Because the villain Wilson, is obsessed with a painting that is referred to as "The Rabbit in a snowstorm." Its so important to the plot, they named an entire episode after it.
Here is what I find fascinating about Marvel's use of this painting--the main hero of the story is blind. So arguably, the rabbit in a snowstorm would not look like anything to him, aside from what he claims to see everywhere which is "a world on fire." This disparity in world view is not only a great symbol for the show, it draws a giant circle around the problem--we just can't assume standard viewing conditions nor can we assume standard viewers.
A disposinalist might say that this is an extreme and fictional circumstance and that I'm purposefully being difficult and argumentative (I am a little, I'll own). But I would say that silly as it seems, if pink is universally experienced as PINK then we have to take that absolutism to its furthest extent and expect that even for a blind person, or a color blind person, or a person wearing their sunglasses at night, the pink item would still be disposed to be pink. Because in this world view, pink itself as a color is FIXED and everything about it comes from the color being disposed to being pink. Even if we can't see it, it is STILL pink.
There is another problem beyond the purely physical that this argument doesn't make room for which is that color brings with it cultural associations that has been proven to cause people to be able to discern colors differently. In other words--two people with the same physical abilities and in the same environment from different cultures do NOT always see color the same. Again, the disposionalist falls back on that old tried and true "standard viewing conditions and viewers."
Obviously, the above argument has some issues. So a group broke off and decided to form what they call "Color Relativism." Basically its all the same stuff from above but with one very major caveat. Instead of saying the grass is green because it is disposed to be green, they would say: the grass looks green in the sunshine." In other words, they assign the environment to the color and don't just assume it.
At first glace it seems like a reasonable compromise. But there might be a part of you that feels there is something amiss here. And you would be right, there is a tricky assumption that is trying to bamboozle you. Because what is happening here is the viewer (and all of their singular issues) is STILL being removed from the equation. Relativism promises that with the perfect descriptions and environment we can all understand colors the same. There can be no mistaking one color for another, there are no cultural color differences and the color is at the end of the argument still existing because it exists. And we are right back to the circular definition problem: The grass looks green in the sun. Why is it green in the sun? Because it is disposed to be green. We know green exists because it is green and not red.
The problem I have with subjective relational color theory, is that there is a problematic assumption. That this is about a what and its really about where. Where does color exist?
Its easy to say that its all science and the red object is still red even when a blind person can't see it, because its physics. Its all external. But I think even the strictest subjective relational color theorist would chafe a bit at falling back on pure science, because at the heart of the matter, is well, our hearts. And we have--as color metaphysics call it--an intuition that this is about so much more than the rules of science. It is about the nature of our reality and our relationship to that reality. It shows the very soul of metaphysics; how do we understand our existence?
Which is why Daredevil is such a perfect illustration of the fight between the concrete and abstraction because the painting wasn't just a painting, it was a symbol of a worldview that one man was trying to make manifest. And the blind man, blind though he was, saw a very different world. But what matters here is BOTH of those worlds existed to them. There was a rabbit in a snowstorm and a world on fire. One might argue that the moment they attempted to manifest their internal world externally the metaphysical shit hit the fan because their views were so at odds. I don't believe the writers were saying that there could be only one true reality as the subjective relational metaphysics would argue, I think they were saying the leap between the idea of changing the world and the reality of the world is a complicated one.
This is the same difficult leap we find ourselves experiencing when we speak of color. We know that color may be a physical property but it also is something else entirely. It is the walking definition of instantiate. An abstract idea made manifest. And if its abstract then does it really truly exist?
What do you think?
Next week we will continue our discussion talking about reductive physicalist theories. As always, I welcome further debate/discussion. I love the hear what other people think about color. See you next week!