From Color to Consciousness: The Trouble With Describing Experience

Drunk Tank PinkWe see distinct colors in the spectrum, but their boundaries are impossible to measure precisely. — Adam Alter

In Drunk Tank Pink, Adam Alter points out that the labels we use in our respective languages influence the way we perceive a given item.

…Russian students perceive dark blue to be just as different from light blue as the color green is from the color blue to English students. — Adam Alter

English speakers see the color blue as sitting somewhere between green and purple, but Russians see a distinct difference between two shades of blue. The difference is not as basic as making a distinction between light and dark, rather to the Russians they are two separate colors, as different as blue and green.

As such, the Russian speakers can differentiate between those colors faster and with more ease than English speakers, despite both looking at the exact same sets.

How to Create a Mind… our conscious experience of our perceptions is actually changed by our interpretations. — Ray Kurzweil

Color is a spectrum, trying to define the start and end points of each color is troublesome. Are they all separate? Or do they overlap? How many times should we break the full spectrum down?

Experiencing Color

One of the more important, yet almost totally inaccessible problems with labeling colors, is that we really don’t know how each of us experiences a particular color.

We’ve been looking at the world with the same eyes our whole life, we know what red is, what constitutes green, or blue, or any other color. But how do we know that our experience of red is the same as another’s? They might see red as the color we call blue, but we’d never know, because describing such a quality is near impossible.

Ray Kurzweil, in How To Create A Mind, talks of a thought experiment in which a woman who happens to be color blind studies the color red. She cannot see it, of course, but she can study the physical properties of light, she can listen to people’s descriptions, she can read poetry and find adequate metaphors, but she still has yet to experience it.

If she wanted to, she could probably convince people that she had experienced red, but all the poetry in the world would not actually enable her to have that experience. — Ray Kurzweil

Only upon shedding her color-blindness for full spectrum viewing will she know what it’s truly like to see red.

There’s also a discrepancy with the physical properties of color and the way we perceive them. White light, for example, is a mixture of all colors, yet we see it as being pure and empty.

Consciousness and the Social BrainWhite light contains a mixture of all wavelengths in the visible spectrum. It is the dirtiest, muddiest color possible. But the visual system does not model it in that way. Instead, the visual system encodes the information of high brightness and low color. — Michael Graziano

There’s clearly a divide between what goes in and what we experience. Our minds are painting us a picture that we accept, we do not know if it’s the same picture being painted in someone else’s mind, and we do not know how accurately our painting models the physical realm.

The perceptual world and the objective world do not always match. — Michael Graziano

From Color to Consciousness

The experience of color is not the only difficult experience to describe. Consciousness is one that many great minds have tried to wrap their vocabularies around for millennia. Like color, we intuitively know what it is, we know what it’s like to experience it, but to describe it causes headaches and arguments.

Individual philosophical assumptions about the nature and source of consciousness underlie disagreements on issues ranging from animal rights to abortion. — Ray Kurzweil

We’re adept at describing the physical world, but when it comes to our inner experience, language is found lacking.

Awareness is simply what it feels like to process information. — Michael Graziano

How do you know that what you call painful feels the same subjectively as someone else’s pain? For someone that cannot experience it, how would you describe it to them?

These subjective, inner experiences are qualia. We are conscious of them, we experience them, but we cannot properly describe them.

[Qualia are] …certain features of the bodily sensations especially, but also of certain perceptual experiences, which no amount of purely physical information includes. — Frank Jackson

The Spectrum of Awareness

Is consciousness itself a quale? As a subjective experience of being aware, we really don’t know that our consciousness is anything like that of another, we can use our language all we want in trying to describe what it’s like to be us, but there’s no way to know how similar or unalike our conscious selves are.

… physical reality exists separate from our perception of it, but all we can know of that reality is what we perceive with our senses — which can be heightened through our tools — and the logical inferences we can make from these sensory impressions. — Ray Kurzweil

Would it be fair to say that like color, our awareness is also a spectrum? From full alertness to drowsy tiredness to total unconsciousness. If so, where do we label the start and the end? What about someone who has been in an accident and lost some mental functions? Where do other animals sit on the scale?

Each of us will differ slightly in our interpretation, yet we cannot even be sure that consciousness for us feels anything like consciousness for another.

The most basic, measurable, quantifiable truth about consciousness is simply this: we humans can say that we have it — Michael Graziano

How would you describe consciousness to an unconscious yet intelligent creature? How about color to the colorblind? The taste of coffee to someone yet to experience it?

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