The Same Blue

There is a puzzle that sometimes occurs to the metaphysically unwary. It comes in several forms but a convenient one is the question ‘If you and I were standing together, looking at the sky, would we see the same blue?’

The common sense answer to this might be ‘We are both looking at the sky. We see the same thing. The sky is blue. End of story.’

A physiologically more sensitive response might point out that there could be differences in the way our brains were wired. One of us, for example, might be blue-yellow colour-blind, in which case, we would not see the same thing. In order to answer the question, therefore, we may need a series of tests to eliminate the possibility of any such abnormalities. The results will enable us to say whether or not we see the same thing.

Neither of these answers satisfy the metaphysical enquirer, who is probing for something deeper, something that is better captured in the question ‘Is my experience of blue the same as your experience of blue?’ or, even more precisely, ‘If I were looking through your eyes, would I see the same blue that I see if I were looking through my eyes’. This second question takes us back to Jurgen’s conundrum. It suggests a dualistic view of what it is to be a person.

We can picture a human being as consisting two parts. The first is a kind of biological machine – the body. The second, which we can imagine as being inside the first, is a control room – the mind. Information is gathered by various sensors, the eyes, for example, and transmitted to the control room. There it is presented to the controller, the ‘I’, in the form of mental images, sense data or what have you. The controller makes decisions and sends out instructions that the body performs. The question now becomes ‘If I were in your control room rather than in mine, would I have the same mental images as you do?’ Answer: maybe, maybe not. It is impossible to know because I can never be in your control room, nor you in mine. I can never have any idea what actually appears on the screens in your mind.

This view of things goes further. It suggests that everything that goes on in my mind is utterly private and inaccessible to you or to anyone else. I do not know what you are thinking. I cannot feel your pain. I do not have your memories or your dreams. I do not see the same colours and shapes that you see. I am alone in my mind, locked in the private world of my subjective experience and I can have no direct knowledge of what is going on in your mind. In fact, we are so separate that it might well occur to me to wonder if you have a mind at all. Maybe your control room is empty.  All I can detect on my sensors, after all, is your physical part, your body. Then again, there is an even more radical possibility – maybe there is no world out there at all. Maybe all that exists is my mind, with its manifold contents.

These slightly mad conclusions, which nobody takes seriously except certain teenagers, lunatics and drug addicts, are very hard to combat once we have accepted the initial metaphor. The problems arise as soon as we start thinking of the mind as a container for all subject experience, a directly knowable in-here as opposed to an indirectly knowable out-there. If this is what the concept of mind involves then it is, at best, confusing and, at worst, dangerous and ought to be abandoned.

Instead, we should be thinking in terms of whole persons, who have different kinds of experiences, including memories, dreams, reflections, perceptions, sensations, emotions, intuitions, and so on. My experiences belong to me by virtue of being things that I attend to. They are objects of my point of view in other words. Some experiences are of such a nature that I can keep them to myself if I wish to. Others I share with other people. Still others I have in common with other people.

If I stub my toe, I have a pain in my toe and not in my mind. I can choose to keep the pain to myself but there is nothing especially private about it. You can’t feel the pain in my toe but you can know what it is like to have such a pain. You can share my point of view, in other words. If there are any differences in how we experience pain – if one of us is more sensitive than the other for example – then those differences are, in principle and probably in practice, discoverable. The so-called privacy of the mind is not much difference from the privacy of the bathroom.

There is perhaps only one disadvantage in thinking of oneself as a whole person characterised by embodied experience. There is little room in this picture for an immortal soul.

And the sky is blue. At least, it was yesterday.

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