In this article, I argue that popular explanatory frameworks in perceptual psychology suggest the truth of color realism. I focus on perceptual judgments and their evidential basis: namely perceptual representation. I first draw a distinction between two sorts of normativities with respect to which we can evaluate representational capacities and systems: biological and psychological normativities. The former is defined in terms of evolutionary fitness, and the latter in terms of representational accuracy. Generally, representational systems achieve psychological and biological success (i.e., facilitate survival and reproduction and accurately represent the world) hand in hand, but in special circumstances, a representational system can be such that it serves the organism best while not generally furnishing the organism with accurate representations. I argue in this essay that an explanation how and why our ancestors developed color vision that cleaves its biological success conditions from its psychological success conditions cannot be given unless we are prepared to say the same about the visual perception of distance and other geometrical features of the world. Moreover, it is difficult to see how the anti-realist could begin to specify psychological success conditions for color representations. Hence, we ought to accept the biological utility of color vision as evidence that it is typically representationally successful, and regard our perceptual judgments about color as generally true.
This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.
Buy single article
Instant access to the full article PDF.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
Subscribe to journal
Immediate online access to all issues from 2019. Subscription will auto renew annually.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
I assume here that avoidance behavior is an exercise of agency, and that an exercise of agency must be guided by representations in the agent’s mind.
This is perhaps a bit oversimplified, as there is some parasitic cases: doubting that what is represented in perception, for instance, or judging contrary to perception, but these cases will not concern us in anything that follows.
This is not a metaphysical theory of information. How exactly to understand the nature of information per se is a matter of dispute. The dominant, perhaps classical, understanding of information is as a probabilistic notion, as in Shannon (1948) and Dretske (1981). An alternative proposal due to Cohen (2003) analyses information in terms of counterfactual relations between events.
This result has been reproduced many times. See Wright (2013).
For misgivings about motivating phenomenal constancy by appeal to the dimensionality of color, see Wright (2013: 448)
Foster specifies that the property be surface reflectance, but this isn’t a necessary specification — changes the represented sort of property may be merely correlated with changes in reflectance, so long as they are illumination-independent. It is important to note this in order to stay neutral between the various theories of color ontology.
I will ignore other skeptical possibilities, since the point about the brain-in-vat scenario is meant to generalize.
Or, in the case of the brain in a vat, some connection between the perceiver and supercomputer.
One task for the empirical project of studying color perception is to unpack just what “natural daylight” and “commonly occurring surface reflectances” could mean to the visual system. That is, by what parameters would the visual system recognize such features of the environment? I bracket those questions here.
Recently, Stov̌er and Bregant (2017: 91) have advanced a form of realism in which colors exist in the brain, while remaining silent on the status of ordinary demonstrative judgments about color. They note that “the latest neurophysiological research suggests that the activity of certain neurons in the brain is enough to realize the colour experience” and conclude that because this is all that is required in order that one experience colors, it must be that colors are located in the brain. According to what we have advanced above, this line of reasoning seems specious. It mistakes the visual representation of color for the instantiation or existence of color—consider that our experience of color can be inaccurate. Were the experience of any given color sufficient for it to be found in the world, there would be no color illusions nor hallucinations. In fact, we ought to count artificially created circumstances like those cited by the authors as paradigmatic of those that give rise to illusion.
I have in mind here something along the lines of Burge’s (1991) criticism of Searle’s theory of perceptual content according to which the causal chain between perceived objects and the perceiver is part of the content of a perceptual state. Burge claims that this is simply something that must be in place in order that the content be veridical, but not part of the content itself. It is in this sense that I use the phrase “background condition.”
Here for a surface to “appear” some color is for it to be represented as having that color. If we understand color vision as relying on projective color constancy, this does not necessarily entail that the qualitative appearance of the surface has a particular “phenomenal feel.”
“Performance was nearly perfect for arrays of 1–3 items and then declined systematically as the set size increased from 4 to 12 items.” (Luck and Vogel 1997: 279)
Thanks to Jonathan Cohen, Kevin Falvey, Michael Rescorla, Wayne Wright, two anonymous referees, and an audience at UC Santa Barbara for many helpful comments and suggestions on earlier drafts of this material.
Arend, L., & Reeves, A. (1986). Simultaneous color constancy. Journal of the Optical Society of America A, 3, 1743–1751.
Averill, E.W. (2005). Toward a projectivist account of color. The Journal of Philosophy, 102(5), 217–234.
Boghossian, P., & Velleman, J. (1991). David Physicalist theories of color. Philosophical Review, 100, 67–106.
Brainard, D.H. (2009). Color constancy. In Goldstein, B. (Ed.) In the sage encyclopedia of perception (pp. 253–257). Los Angeles: SAGE Publications.
Burge, T. (1991). Vision and intentional content. In LePore, E., & Van Gulick, R. (Eds.) John Searle and his critics. Wiley: Blackwell.
Burge, T. (2005). Disjunctivism and perceptual psychology. Philosophical Topics, 33(1), 1–78.
Burge, T. (2010). Origins of objectivity. London: Oxford University Press.
Byrne, A., & Hilbert, D.R. (2003). Color realism and color science. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 26(1), 3–21.
Cohen, J. (2003). An objective counterfactual theory of information. Australasian Journal of Philosophy, 84(3), 333–352.
Dretske, F. (1981). Knowledge and the flow of information. Cambridge: MIT Press.
Evans, R.M. (1951). U.S. Patent No. 2,571,697. Washington: U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.
Foster, D.H. (2003). Does colour constancy exist? Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 7(10), 439–443.
Gibson, J. (1979). The ecological approach to visual perception. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Gibson, J. (2002). A theory of direct visual perception. In Noe, A., & Thompson, E. (Eds.) Vision and mind: selected readings in the philosophy of perception (pp. 77–89): MIT Press.
Hardin, C.L. (1988). Color for philosophers: unweaving the rainbow. Hackett Publishing.
Heesy, C.P. (2009). Seeing in stereo: the ecology and evolution of primate binocular vision and stereopsis. Evolutionary Anthropology, 18, 21–35.
Hilbert, D. (2005). Color constancy and the complexity of color. Philosophical Topics, 33, 141–158.
Hilbert, D. (2011). Constancy, content, and inference. In Hatfield, G., & Allred, S. (Eds.) Visual experience (pp. 339–361). London: Oxford University Press.
Marr, D. (1982). Vision: a computational investigation into the human representation and processing of visual information. Henry Holt and Co. Inc.
Maund, B. (2006). The illusory theory of colours: an anti-realist theory. Dialectica, 60(3), 245–268.
Luck, S.J., & Vogel, E.K. (1997). The capacity of visual working memory for features and conjunctions. Nature, 390, 279–281.
Neumeyer, C. (1980). Simultaneous color contrast in the honeybee. Journal of Comparative Physiology, 139, 165.
Palmer, S. (1999). Vision science: photons to phenomenology. Cambridge: MIT Press.
Radonjić, A., & Brainard, D.H. (2016). The nature of instructional effects in color constancy. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 42(6), 847–865.
Pautz, A. (2006). Sensory awareness is not a wide physical relation: an empirical argument against externalist intentionalism. Noû,s, 40(2), 205–240.
Pautz, A. (2014). The real trouble for phenomenal externalists. In Brown, R. (Ed.) Consciousness inside and out: phenomenology, neuroscience and the nature of experience. New York: Springer.
Putnam, H. (1981). Reason, truth, and history, cambridge. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Chapter 1, 1–21.
Reeves, A.J., Amano, K., Foster, D.H. (2008). Color constancy: phenomenal or projective? Perception & Psychophysics, 70, 219–228.
Shannon, C.E. (1948). A mathematical theory of communication. Bell System Technical Journal, 27(3), 379–423.
Shepard, R.N. (2001). Perceptual-cognitive universals as reflections of the world. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 24, 581–601.
Stožer, A., & Bregant, J. (2017). Physicalist and dispositionalist views on colour: a physiological objection. Acta Analytica, 32(1), 73–93.
Tye, M. (2003). Consciousness: color, and content. Cambridge: MIT Press.
Wright, W. (2013). Color constancy reconsidered. Acta Analytica, 28(4), 435–455.
Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.
About this article
Cite this article
McGrath, C. In Defense of Color Realism. Acta Anal 35, 101–127 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12136-019-00391-3
- Perceptual constancy