What colour is this dress? The fundamental truths that it – and philosophy – can teach us

Don't believe what you see in the world, and certainly don't argue about it — philosophers have known these truths for centuries, and we can learn them from #TheDress

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The Independent Online

The universe is a vast, unknowable, place. And this morning we received one of the most powerful reminders ever — in the form of a controversial dress.

Everyone sees things differently

The Dress isn’t white and gold, or blue and black. It is, at best, an object in space that reflects certain wavelengths of light, which are then interpreted by human eyes and brains as conforming with certain ideas of colour. Even that isn’t for sure.

It’s because colour is a kind of qualia – the philosophical term for the individual bits of subjective experience that each of us have. They’re impossible to pass on – you might be able to let someone try your glass of wine, but they’ll never experience the taste you do; you can tell someone you have a headache but they’ll never really feel your pain.

Erwin Schrödinger, the physicist, said that no matter how much we know about the fact of light-waves – that the dress reflects certain frequencies, and so on – we will never fully understand how people experience them.

“The sensation of color cannot be accounted for by the physicist's objective picture of light-waves,” he writes – apparently predicting #TheDress – in What is Life?  “Could the physiologist account for it, if he had fuller knowledge than he has of the processes in the retina and the nervous processes set up by them in the optical nerve bundles and in the brain? I do not think so.”

An influential paper by American philosopher Thomas Nagel asked “What is it like to be a bat?” The point is that we’ll never know – we can understand all of the facts about the life of a bat but will never understand what it’s truly like to inhabit the consciousness of one.

And it’s the same with people who see the dress as blue and black – they are like bats, forever mysterious to us.

On some issues, you can never be ‘correct’

You probably had an argument with a friend, colleague or stranger this morning about what colour the dress was. They said one combination, you said another — and then nothing happened.

Because there are some things that will never be objective. And since they’re not in the external world, you can never properly argue about them.

This is true, of course, of issues bigger than the dress. God, morality, truth: ultimately you can never convince anyone of anything about them, because your language can’t make reference to things that can’t be seen in the world (or so say some philosophers).

That’s why, says AJ Ayer, you end up just shouting at each other about how you feel. (Ayer writes in Language, Truth and Logic that if we are in a moral, or dress colour, argument with someone, we first attempt to convince them of the facts and if they still don’t agree we “abandon the attempt to convince him by argument”.)

The impossibility of discussing things that lie beyond the graspable world of language is what Wittgenstein meant when he concluded his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus with the observation that: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” Our language, and the world, won’t let us argue about whether God exists, or whether murder is always wrong, or whether the dress is blue or gold. So we should shut up.

Images aren’t dependable

Pictures are often taken as a definitive record of what happened. Often, when an argument happens on the internet, someone making a claim will be asked for “Pics or it didn’t happen”, or to provide “pics or gtfo [get the f*** out]”.

But the dress shows that even if images are provided – and, importantly, even if those pictures aren’t photoshopped – it doesn’t necessarily mean anything.

And in doing so it shows how quickly we can be tricked. Even what is thought to be the most dependable thing in human experience – that we can believe the things we see before us – is a lie.

That was the kind of thing that led Descartes to influentially propose that nothing exists. He asked what we can doubt about the world — given that we can see a dress and think it's a different colour, and that we can dream and believe it to be reality, perhaps we have been tricked into thinking the whole of reality is a con.

It was this thinking that led Descartes to proclaim: "I think, therefore I am". But even that has been questioned in the years since — you might not even be able to know for sure that you exist.

The dress probably doesn't exist; God probably doesn't exist; we might not even exist. Stay away from arguing about the dress, lest you come to doubt your very being.