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How People (Actually) Speak of the Colors

Imagine that you take a look at an ordinary CD and conclude that it is round. Now imagine that an alien being from another planet looks at that same CD and concludes that it is triangular. Would you say in such a case that (a) the alien being must be getting it wrong or (b) there is simply no fact of the matter?

Unsurprisingly, studies show that people say that there is a definite fact of the matter in a case like this. They say that the CD truly is round and that the alien being is wrong. 

Now suppose we ask exactly the same question in the domain of color. Suppose you conclude that a tomato is red, while the alien being concludes that the tomato is green. Now, ask yourself: Is the alien getting it wrong here, or might it be that there is just no truth of the matter?

Philosophers have often suggested that the folk view in such a case is that there must be some single objectively right answer. In fact, I recently attended a talk by a prominent metaethicist which started out by boldly announcing that people treat colors as objective and then went to ask the question as to whether people treat moral properties in the same way… 

But, as a new paper by Jonathan Cohen and Shaun Nichols shows, there is good reason to think that this traditional view is not quite right. Though people do give objectivist answers about questions of shape, approximately half of subjects actually give relationalist answers about color. That is,  approximately half of the subjects say that if the human and the alien disagree, then neither has to be wrong, since there is just no fact of the matter about unqualified claims like 'The tomato is red.' 

In my view, studies like this one show something striking about people's ordinary understanding of color but also point toward a deeper sort of question as to how people decide, in a whole variety of different domains, between more objectivist and more relationalist views. Definitely an exciting topic for further research. 

Posted in General.