The Generalist


What is red?

It’s a color, you say. Well, yes, but that doesn’t really explain anything, does it?

Okay, it’s a wavelength of light. Yeah, nope. That doesn’t help, either.

Red is an experience. A very particular experience.

After all, why does that wavelength of light correlate with the particular experience we call red?

Well, you say, there are these rods and cones in the eye that are capable of detecting different intensities and wavelengths of light…

Yeah, I know all that. I’m an artist and a biologist. I studied all about the eye and how light works. Photography, color theory, anatomy of the eye. Been there, done that. None of that explains red.

Look at something red. Go on. Really look at it. What is that sensation you are experiencing? It’s not just a sensation. It’s a very particular sensation.

If you think about it, none of us has any means of proving that any other of us in fact experiences what we each personally call red. That we share certain experiences is just an assumption. How do I know that what you call red wouldn’t look to me like what I call blue? The experience is utterly personal.

So why go on about this? 1. Because it fascinates me. And 2. because it does prove something. It illustrates quite plainly the concept of dualism – i.e., that mind and brain are most decidedly NOT the same thing.

Your mind, i.e., that thing that experiences red when your brain receives messages from rods and cones when light comes in your eyes, is a very real thing and very distinct from your brain.

Why is it so easy to overlook this fundamental reality?

I think it’s because there is no other thing like it. Material things have all sorts of properties. We can compare material things with other material things. But each of us is experiencing only our lives. We only ever see our red. The rest is all just an assumption that other people are just like us.

This leads to another problem – a narcissistic arrogance, if you will, that the products of minds are somehow nothing of importance. A car is greater than the sum of it’s parts, you might say. No. You have just left out some of the parts. Specifically, those parts that come from a mind. Further, people deny aspects of their own minds quite naturally. Envy, for example. No one likes to think they are experiencing that. And yet so many people are.

But maybe it is just a cultural focus on science that prevents people from seeing the forest for the trees. Empirical science can say nothing about the mind. Oh, yes, it can tell you something about behavior. But that is just a public manifestation of an utterly private experience. Science can tell you about what’s public. It can never tell you anything about what’s private – i.e., it can never tell you what red is. It can never be sure that your red isn’t someone else’s blue.

An interesting side note to this: AI. Will computers ever be “conscious”? Well, how would we tell a computer how to experience red? We certainly can give it a means of detecting a wavelength of light. We can tell it to call that wavelength of light red. But what will we tell it to experience?

Look at something red. Really look it. What is red? Can you explain it to Siri? Or Alexa?

Good luck!

I'm a blogger.


  1. Jim Robertazzi

    5 Jan 2018 - 2:10 pm

    Love this!!

  2. Gard

    29 Jan 2018 - 10:35 pm

    You nailed a beautiful and fundamental axiom about existence, Lisa. The mind-brain duality is manifest and the mind experience is subjective. Impossibly resistant to quantification. You make me indescribably happy I have a mind…

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