Sunday, May 18, 2008

Explaining color to the blind

One of the stupider defenses of religion is drawing the analogy of explaining the mystical experience of God to the perception of sight, color or sound to the blind and deaf. James McGrath tries just this move*:
Would if be going too far to say that those who have had mystical experiences are in very much the position of sighted people trying to explain color to the blind, or music lovers trying to explain why a piece moves them so much to someone who is tone deaf?
Note the shifting of the frame: McGrath talks about trying to explain the subjective experience of color or music, but atheists are asking a much simpler question: do these experiences regardless of their subjective character compel belief in some underlying reality?

*(h/t to Larry Moran)

A sighted person can convince a blind person of the existence of color without having to somehow communicate what it's "like" to see colors. It's not only possible to convince a blind person that color exists, it's trivially easy. Scientists have been discerning the difference between subjective experiences that compel belief in various real phenomena and those that do not. We can tell the difference between X-rays and N-rays, thermodynamics and phlogiston, biochemistry and vitalism — none of which, true or false, we have any sort of direct experience about.

The rational blind person will become interested in the subjective experience of color only after the sighted person demonstrates that color really does exist. Since it's trivially easy to demonstrate the real existence of color, we tend to take such a demonstration for granted. But just taking some proposition for granted does not elevate it to an arbitrarily held metaphysical principle.

In just the same sense we skeptical atheists will become interested in a specifically theistic subjective phenomenology of religion only after it has been adequately demonstrated that the evidence compels a belief in the real existence of theism. Make the apologetic case and then we'll consider the theology.

6 comments:

  1. You say its trivially easy to demonstrate color to a blind person, and I don't doubt this, but I would be interested in thoughts on how you'd go about doing it.

    I suppose one way would be to have the blind person use differently colored crayons that to them feel and smell the same to mark papers, and then see if sighted people can reliably tell which "color" crayon was used just by looking.

    You still wouldn't be able to get a sense of what it was really LIKE though. And this gets into the fascinating philosophical areas inhabited by people like Thomas Negal, or discussions of philosophical zombies, and other fun stuff. :)

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  2. I've attempted to answer this before by saying that if I were blind, I would just take people's word for it that color exists. Likewise, here I take people's word for it that mystical experiences exist. It's the interpretation of said experiences that I find questionable, unless people define God to be the mystical experience itself. I don't think a mystical experience is a good justification to believe in God, not for me, and not for the person who had the experience.

    I've yet to see this reply work.

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  3. Bad: You say its trivially easy to demonstrate color to a blind person...

    It's trivially easy to demonstrate the real existence of color to a blind person.

    I would be interested in thoughts on how you'd go about doing it.

    The sighted person puts a ball in the blind person's left hand and calls it "red"; she puts a ball in the blind person's right hand and calls it "green". The blind person randomly does or does not switch the balls between his hands (and he remembers whether or not he did) and then shows the balls to the sighted person. The sighted person will detect the switch 100% of the time.

    The least explanation for the blind person's observations is that color and sight have some foundation in real properties (or that the sighted person can read his mind).

    You still wouldn't be able to get a sense of what it was really LIKE though.

    Of course not. But getting a sense of what things are "really like" is an entirely separate issue. First demonstrate to me that God exists, and then we can talk about what God-experiences are "really like". Otherwise, we're talking about what one's imagination, fantasies, hallucinations and delusions are "really like"... a interesting question in itself, but very different from what the theists are saying.

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  4. miller: I would just take people's word for it that color exists. Likewise, here I take people's word for it that mystical experiences exist.

    There is an important difference between these two cases. Experiences are phenomenological; Color is (in part) ontological; color concerns properties of the world outside our experience. That color exists is a conclusion about reality we draw as the least explanation for our experiences.

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  5. Oh, that's a good point. Thanks for pointing that out.

    ReplyDelete

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