5 June 2010

The Redness of Strawberries

Filed under: Ktismata, Psychology — ktismatics @ 7:34 am

[I started writing this post a few weeks ago. In part it was an attempt to outline some aspects of the philosophical realism debates to my wife Anne, who studied the psychology of visual perception in grad school. There was probably more I intended to write, but I don’t recall what it was any more.]

The strawberry looks red to me; it looks red to you. Does it look red to our cat? Presumably not: in empirical findings, cats don’t spontaneously distinguish red from other colors. So what is it about the strawberry that makes it look red to me? What is it about human vision that makes strawberries look red to us? In what ways does human vision differ from feline vision, such that members of these two species perceive the same strawberry differently? These are questions dealing with both visual perception and the properties of light, questions addressed by empirical science.

Is it an intrinsic quality of human vision that we have the potential to see as red any object reflecting light within a certain range of  wavelengths? Is it an intrinsic property of light falling within a particular range of wavelengths that it has the potential to be seen by any human as red? Did the light possess this intrinsic potential for being seen as red by humans even before there were any humans on earth? Does the strawberry possess the intrinsic potential for being perceived in all manner of ways by an infinite number of potential species that haven’t yet evolved and that may never actually evolve anywhere in the universe?

Alternatively, is there something about the human visual sensory-perception system that makes us see light within certain wavelengths as red or, even more strongly, that makes the light red for us? Is there something about the light that causes it to be seen by humans as red, that makes humans see its redness? What is the relation between a thing’s passive receptivity on the one hand, and its active agency on the other?

Maybe the red that I see when looking at the strawberry is a property not of my vision nor of the strawberry, but of the vision-strawberry-light interaction. Maybe it isn’t reducible to intrinsic properties of my vision or the strawberry or the reflected light; rather, it is a hybrid object that emerges from the vision-strawberry-light interaction. Does this imply that the red strawberry which I see comes into being as I look at the strawberry? Is this emergent hybrid red-strawberry-seen object a different thing from the nonred-strawberry-seen object that emerges when the cat looks at the strawberry? Does the hybrid red-strawberry-seen object cease to exist when I stop looking at it? When I look again, is it the same hybrid object as I saw before, or is it a new one?

Can any of these philosophical distinctions be addressed through empirical scientific investigation? Or are they just interesting ideas to speculate about?


1 Comment »

  1. I think I was also going to write something about withdrawn essences. There are presently some strawberries in my dark refrigerator, emitting no light, being seen as red by no humans. Do these unrealized potentials constitute a kind of withdrawn essence of the strawberry, a hidden reserve that the lime and baggied half-an-onion and the other occupants of the fridge’s veggie drawer might not even suspect? Alternatively, the light reflected by the strawberry, its redness, shape, pulp, taste, mass, molecular structure: are all of these but sensual properties of the strawberry, none of them revealing its true essence, which withdraws from every sort of interaction and material manifestation? In case you’re wondering, the first version of withdrawn essence is (my understanding of) Levi Bryant’s theory; the second, of Graham Harman’s.


    Comment by ktismatics — 6 June 2010 @ 8:42 am

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