Is your red my red?

A few days ago, I posted about the online courses I’m taking this summer. Today, I’m going to be at one of my geekiest points as I enthuse about one of them.

One of my classes is called Emotions:  A Philosophical Introduction, from the Autonomous University of Barcelona.


The class is taught by Dr. Jordi Vallverdú. Outside of the actual learning material (which we’ll approach in a moment), Jordi is a significant part of why I enjoy this class so much.  In cartoon additions and examples are perfect and just the right amount of amusing, and his English is unbelievably impressive (I can only wish that my Spanish was anywhere near as good!).

The past week’s lesson was titled “What does a plant feel?”  I appreciated this as a vegan, since one of the number one retorts I receive is “What about the plant’s feelings?  What if they feel pain?  Then what will you do?”  [For the record, plants lack nociceptors and, therefore, do not have the capacity to feel pain.]

As part of this lesson, we were instructed to watch this video about one of the concepts, qualia.  Professor Vallverdú defined qualia in lecture as “the personal, conscious, and phenomenal experience of an event.”  Already intrigued by the ideas he’d presented, this video blew my mind.

I suggest watching it to get the full effect, but I’ll discuss some of the points here, if only because my brain is still reeling.  Immediately after watching it and taking the related quiz I called my mom and lectured her on qualia and the colour red, then did the same to my grandparents (thanks for putting up with me, guys!).

So let’s start by looking at a bottle of Coke.


We can all agree that this is red/rojo/rouge/𣠶/ruə/rot/rood/rosso/vermelho/赤 / 赤い. As you’re first learning colours, someone points to something like this bottle, an apple, or a ball and says “This is red.”  You learn that the colour you are looking at is called red.

But what if I see “red” as it looks above, but to you it looks like this?

plantbottle-ed03 (1)

Just like we can’t explain colour adequately enough for a blind person to “see” it, we can’t explain how we see a certain colour to someone else.  For all we know, what I see as pink could be the same shade you see as purple.

This is why two different people can look at the same pattern and react completely differently. Person A may see the colours in the pattern as perfectly complimentary— the other may see something completely different.

The same goes for food.  You and I could be eating the exact same dish, even agree that it tastes “good,” but be tasting it in a totally different way.  We’re constrained linguistically in how much of an emotion we can truly express (or really understand ourselves).

We’re constrained linguistically in how much of an emotion we can truly express (or really understand ourselves), but it’s possible that that could change.  Someday we may be able to find another, more efficient, alien language or the perfect combination of already-known words, that allows that same blind person to “see” red without using his/her retina.

The video does a far better job of explaining this, of course, and goes much more deeply into the subject, touching on additional ideas like colorblindness.

The world’s a crazy place.


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