Colour me red

beetleAn unexpected, but very welcome, contributor to my recent post on spectral colour was David Briggs, whose excellent website on colour theory, primarily intended for artists, is an invaluable educational tool for us all (or me, at least). I particularly liked his section on colour vision, which shows just what an incredibly sophisticated visual system we enjoy, as well as how disappointingly little of its workings get into the educational curriculum of either arts or sciences. Check out, for example, the set of “illusions” David uses to show how much neurological processing is involved in maintaining our sense of the constancy of colours under different lighting conditions. 

Two rather more general thoughts occur to me from investigations of this sort. The first is the irony that almost the only thing they do not, and in principle cannot, cover is the basic phenomenon of the actual colours we perceive, as philosopher Frank Jackson’s 1982 thought experiment suggested:

Mary is a brilliant scientist who is, for whatever reason, forced to investigate the world from a black and white room via a black and white television monitor. She specializes in the neurophysiology of vision and acquires, let us suppose, all the physical information there is to obtain about what goes on when we see ripe tomatoes, or the sky, and use terms like ‘red’, ‘blue’, and so on. She discovers, for example, just which wavelength combinations from the sky stimulate the retina, and exactly how this produces via the central nervous system the contraction of the vocal chords and expulsion of air from the lungs that results in the uttering of the sentence ‘The sky is blue’.… What will happen when Mary is released from her black and white room or is given a color television monitor? Will she learn anything or not? It seems just obvious that she will learn something about the world and our visual experience of it.

arum_maculatum_54f_John_CrellinColour-as-such, then, is a mental construct (and arguably immaterial). But putting that mind-body problem to one side, we also come to realize that our colour vision has only a somewhat loose connection with the basic Newtonian understanding of colour as wavelengths of light. What drove this home to me most was David’s observation that “unique red” (ie a red that subjectively is neither yellowish nor bluish) cannot be evoked by any single wavelength, owing to the characteristics of the “opponent” processing of the input from the trichromic cone cells. This “pure” red needs a touch of colour from the blue end of the spectrum to appear.

lion-fishThese two thoughts might lead one to nod and say our perception of colour is an illusion, not truly reflecting physical reality, and literally that’s true. But actually, the heavy processing and interpretation of the image formed on our retinae, even before we get to the level of consciousness, is the imposition of meaning on what would otherwise be a chaotic sea of data about wavelengths and light intensities giving quite contradictory information about the world. It’s as if our visual system presents our minds with a unique and ready-made theory of reality.

red-back-spiderIf that’s true, then maybe it adds ammunition to the argument I’ve been repeating, that all perception is a product of mind, or in this case of physiology, as much as of “objective” (by what criteria?) physical reality. But keeping in mind the truth that colour and visual objects are primarily “in here” rather than “out there”, I want to provoke some other thoughts on “meaning” as an intrinsic property of life, and not just of “human souls”. To do so, let’s consider once again aposematism, ie warning colouration, and the fact that, accepting the standard views on that subject, many species have evolved that warn (or bluff) about their toxicity through colour. One of the commonest signals is bright red colouration.

ladybirdI did a little on the evolution of colour vision in different organisms last year. Given the separately-evolved tetrachromicity of most animals, and the bichromicity of mammals other than primates, questioning to what extent they see as we do is more than an abstruse philosophical question. Clearly they don’t.

Incidentally, working out even the physiological nature of those differences isn’t necessarily straightforward: it’s assumed that dogs, for example, are red-green colour-blind. But parallels with human bichromism may be misleading. Our colour-blind neighbour has a deficient “L” pigment in a system designed to work with three pigments, especially in the way the “opponent system” coralproduces our main colour perceptions. The two mammal pigments actually both cover most of the spectrum, so who knows what colour information might be extracted by some different canine  higher-level processing? Some recent work on dog colour perception showed they did better than expected, but omitted any testing of reds and greens, presumably because their red-blindness was assumed, although the “M” pigment is actually sensitive well into the red range. Perhaps all the “warm” colours look red to Fido, and it must be nice to be able to tell meat from grass.

Mammals aside, although we may not know how animals perceive red, it’s pretty obviously a bright and intrusive colour to predators, since khaki or grey are not popular warning colours – and red is also popular in species whose males exhibit elaborate courtship displays. It seems likely that animals see red much as we do (which for some reason I find even more philosophically strange than human colour “qualia”).

red_butterfly-Returning to aposematically red organisms, like those illustrated throughout this piece, they’ve all evolved with the “idea” that red “body-colour” is a good warning message, in a variety of lighting conditions. They’re not particular about how that message is generated, whether through red pigments or, as in the case of many insects, through refraction, diffraction and reflection.

That presupposes that their potential predators are seeing physical reality through much the same perceptive spectacles as we do – they must have some mechanisms equivalent to ours to enable confusing frequencies from highlights or shadows to be reinterpreted as “red”, and likewise for the non-prey to remain “red” even under low or coloured light conditions.

IMG_1943_mediumNow as I’ve said, our view of physical reality (to which one might add our other senses) is a highly constructed one even apart from the rational and linguistic interpretations that are uniquely human. It’s so much constructed and neurologically interpreted that our reality has often been downgraded to that of “illusion” in materialism. But here’s the thing – this kind of “theory of reality” appears to be one we share with the whole biosphere, to extrapolate from the examples of “warning red” I have illustrated. OK, maybe birds and insects see into the ultraviolet, and non-primates can distinguish only 10,000 rather than 1 million hues – and who knows what shrimps with 12 chromatic pigments can distinguish? But these variations are like mere dialects, or at most languages, all conveying an essentially shared message – or illusion – of the physical world. Everything seems to be interested in colour more than electromagnetic frequency.

Maybe “common meaning” is as significant a truth as “common ancestry” in the story of life. That either tells us that the conceptual illusions we need to overcome are anything up to 3 billion years old and universal to everything with a consciousness nof reality – an uphill task, it would seem – or maybe that it’s better to take “biological reality” as a given and view the “raw truth” behind it as merely the symbolic carrier for communicating it.


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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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28 Responses to Colour me red

  1. Lou Jost says:

    Jon, most of the creatures you show are not merely red, they are boldly patterned in lights and darks. They would be conspicuous and memorable even for a predator with black-and-white vision. And for things with non-trichromatic color vision, these things would also stand out from their environment (in contrast with cryptic prey species).

    That said, birds are probably the main predators for many of these things, and they have good color vision, with four classes of receptors instead of our three. They are known to see UV patterns that are invisible to us, and these patterns are often dramatic in insects (and in many flowers too). We are the color-blind ones compared to them, and we are missing a lot of what is going on in the world because of it.

    The situation with non-human primates is rather complicated, and varies from species to species, and sometimes even between sexes in the same species!

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


      Yeah, I left out the new world monkeys and their colour issues – life is complicated enough. Similarly the question of UV vision is fascinating not just because we know they see what we can’t, but because we can’t imagine what they see… except that it’s an extension of what we see.

      Likewise if I hadn’t wanted to focus on one simple phenomenon (hence leaving out the black spots) I’d have included our old friend the bat, which perceives the world through completely different senses, as Nagel writes, but yet (in the context of this post) is thereby still reconstructing essentially the same world of solid objects and so on – the same “illusions” arise through very different apparatus and appear to be shared by “all living”.

      • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

        PS I also toyed with including what I read in the aposematism book, that birds seem to have an inbuilt aversion to the coral-snake colour scheme, which crops up in many unrelated species of which a large number are harnless. In the end I just found a poisonous one to illustrate.

      • Lou Jost says:

        “… still reconstructing essentially the same world of solid objects and so on – the same “illusions” arise through very different apparatus and appear to be shared by “all living.” ”

        That’s an odd perspective. The convergence of different senses and different representational systems is not surprising, since physical reality is shared by “all living”. There is an objective reality out there, independent of minds. You put the cart before the horse in your mind-first perspective. Sure, we learn about external reality through mental experiences, and as you often point out, these are not transparent windows but often misleading constructs. But from careful analysis of these, we infer there really is an external reality, with about the same level of confidence as we have when we infer that there are other minds.

      • Lou Jost says:

        Maybe a better way of expressing what I am trying to say is that mind may be empirically primary, but not causally primary.

        • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

          Well, that’s a start. But how, pray, do we distinguish the two?

          • Lou Jost says:

            Mind has no extra effect on matter above and beyond the effects of matter on matter. Matter controls mind, not the other way around. Electrodes in your head can make you experience things that are not happening in the material world. Drugs can make you forget who you are, or permanently change who you are. Your mind on the other hand can’t make something happen in the physical world except via a strictly physical causal chain.

          • Lou Jost says:

            If prayer or religious miracles or psychic phenomena were demonstrated, then this conclusion would have to be revised, of course.

            • Lou Jost says:

              “Prayer” -> “Efficacy of prayer”

              • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


                My new post relates to the general issue.

                But you are reading this in Ecuador purely because my mind arranged matter and energy so you would. The fact that my mind does it via a physical causal chain begs the question – if it didn’t, mind wouldn’t have affected natter, would it?

                As for the question of prayer, if you’re going to introduce the mind of God into things, then my case is simply “the Universe”.

                But the big question is what might be this “physical world” of which you speak, in the absence of our minds and senses to formulate it?

                A “solid object” would appear to be an arrangement of fields of … whatever … given a position in the space-time continuum only by our constructing a mental grid by which to locate them… one that, as I said, is shared by living things, but not as far as I know by any other created thing.

                Since Hume, the question of physical causality has been open to severe doubt: if his denial of causality is a construct of mind, then so is its affirmation.

                And I won’t even begin to look at the role of the mind in interpretations of quantum theory. I construct an experiment, the wave function collapses according to my design, and according to common understandings of your favourite Many Worlds Theory the Universe instantly splits into a vast number of alternatives. But if this guy is right, all the alternatives are non-existent in reality, and so it follows that the solidity of this version is a mental construction too.

                Note I’m not at all denying the existence of the reality we share with the animals, but just that it wouldn’t be that reality without us. Or God.

  2. Lou Jost says:

    Switching to fatter column to respond…

    Your comment linked to a good article on QM. You seem to “see what you want to believe” in it. In fact it correctly argues that there is no role for mind, no collapse of the state vector when a conscious observer interacts with the world. (And note that he also, like me, more or less supports the many-worlds interpretation, only arguing that it is badly named.)

    In your last paragraph you agree that the external world exists, but you say it would not be the same without us. In that last phrase, you are confusing the world with our experience of it. Our experience of the world would not be the same if we didn’t exist, obviously. But if we were all suddenly to die, nothing else would change about the world. Birds with their quadrichromatic vision experience a much richer visual world than we do. If all birds died, do you think anything in physical reality would change? No. Whether conscious observers exist or not has no bearing on the existence of the phenomena that trigger conscious experience.

    Your noting of the constructive, theory-laden nature of perception adds support to this view. Even our “direct” conscious experiences are highly constructed by our brain and lower-level processing by the rods and cones and their nerves, etc. These are the illusions; physical reality is the constant that explains the approximate agreement among human observers, or between human and animal observers.

    Conscious experience bears all the hallmarks of an epiphenomenon. No physical laws seem to be violated in the brain; it is just matter, just as “organic chemistry” turned out to be just…chemistry. No elan vital. People resisted this view for a long time.

    What is this “mind” you speak of? As I said, it would have been possible to demonstrate that mind did something, rather than being purely a spectator of physical actions in the brain. So far, this has not been demonstrated. The reverse, however, is amply demonstrated. I can temporarily or permanently erase your memories, or change your experience of the world, or alter your personality, by playing with electrodes or chemicals. I can even fool you into thinking that you “freely” decided to move a limb, when in fact I did it by stimulating a certain nerve. Mind is, as far as we can tell, an epiphenomenon.

  3. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    Who is this “we” of which you speak?

  4. Avatar photo GD says:

    A few (somewhat humorous observations); it may be possible to imagine a universe with one human being, and I would then suppose he or she may simply experience the world as sensations. The impossibility of this is obvious, but we may imagine it.

    It may be possible to imagine that an electrode or chemical may stimulate some part of the brain and this may be considered as a demonstration – just how would this occur without a mind intending to perform that action? It obviously cannot.

    It may be possible to relate various sensory experiences with specific events and from this deduce something that is considered as explanatory – but surely this act itself must be done through intention, method and intellect!

    I am not seeking a lengthy debate on mind or materialism or any variants thereof. Nonetheless I cannot help but smile at the lengths materialists (especially eliminative materialists) go to convince them-selves that everything must ultimately be reduced to meaningless pointless phenomena – even when they expend a considerable part of their lives thinking about such things. For an interesting discussion I recommend Freddoso, “Oh My Soul, There’s Animals and Animals:Some Thomistic Reflections on Contemporary Philosophy of Mind” which can easily be found on the internet.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      Nice paper by Freddoso, GD.

      …everything must ultimately be reduced to meaningless pointless phenomena.

      Indeed it must, if the mental tools one uses were designed to do just that. “The best definition of ‘material’ may be just ‘the sort of thing that science can discover'” (Gary Gutting).

  5. Avatar photo Merv Bitikofer says:

    Loved the links to the optical illusions, Jon.

    One general note related to this (and your subsequent) post and resulting comments is that probably nobody here disagrees that there is an objective reality out there however “ungraspable” it may turn out to be by our minds. And furthermore, that last statement must necessarily be a faith statement, though Lou may insist that it isn’t a 100% faith statement. But nonetheless, whether we’re overtly religious or scientists who happen to fancy that they are not religious, we all [here] share in this conviction of the independent existence of reality whether we base it on faith or evidence of convergent predictive successes or some mix of the two. But I think our typical disagreements seem to be no more than what we present as corrective reactions against the extreme claims of the other side. I.e. “How can you say there is no objective reality, and that it is *all* about the mind?!” But I don’t read Jon as making this claim. The opposite extreme seems to be: “There is no aspect of ‘mind’ involved in our best apprehensions and formulations of reality.” And perhaps that really does match what Lou might claim, though I doubt you are 100% denying the involvement of our subjective faculties as necessarily always being between us and objective reality. You are probably willing to allow for the notion even if you do restrict “mind” to a purely mechanical existence.

    On a note more specifically provoked by this article, Jon, I’ll take the liberty of indulging myself in a bit of a rant. I love seeing images brought to our eyes by satellites, probes, telescopes, etc. of various astronomical phenomena. Correspondingly, I hate the seeming preponderance of “artistic representations” of the same so often given in place of actual photographic images. My rationale is that I would much rather see something that I would take to be more real, no matter how blurry or devoid of fanciful color it may happen to be, than to be offered nothing more than what existed in somebody’s fanciful imagination, no matter how technically informed that imagination happened to be. I know that artists could barrage me with objections that photography too, becomes rendered with false color, perhaps sharpened and processed so that there are still many layers separating me from whatever that reality would present to my eyeballs were I actually there. But I still maintain that a line has been crossed that substantially diminishes my pleasure and fascination if I believe I’m being denied “real” visual data of what some planetary surface or some stellar phenomenon visually presents. Coloration and filtration of photographs I can abide as a necessary evil, though even here I think astronomy literature may be shooting itself in the foot by trying to make images more sexy for mass appeal. I wonder if it potentially leads to disillusionment when staring through the telescope eyepiece at the real thing. Though probably not, because I suspect I am not alone in taking pleasure in the thought that here at last: this is reality. If nothing else, all this is an acknowledgment of our unwarranted conviction that vision brings us all the way to brute reality. Thanks for your reminder that it just ain’t so.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      No false colour on this one, Merv – just the pure unvarnished truth!

      I see where you’re coming from, but isn’t the problem partly that (linked to the discussion) we can’t present what space “looks like” except as some kind of symbolic representation of “what it would look like if we could travel at the speed of light to get there, see into the infra-red and not have our retinae fried by associated gamma radiation?”

      The one that gets me (though it’s quite uncharitable to the hardworking artists, I know) is the “trip to the edge of the cosmos” in which galaxies and black holes drift by in perspective as if (a) faster than light travel were possible and (b) Newtonian light theory would apply while we were doing it.

      I guess it’s the macro-version of those videos of DNA replication in which the billiard-ball analogy of molecules, all nicely colour-coded, fools our eyes and minds. But what else are we to do to visualise the molecular scale? a few differential equations would be more truthful, I guess…

    • Lou Jost says:

      Merv, of course you are right when you say “I doubt you are 100% denying the involvement of our subjective faculties as necessarily always being between us and objective reality.” I go farther than Jon in emphasizing that our perceptions are highly constructed and are far from transparent windows on reality. This is why I reject any claims that “revelation” is a way of knowing, for example.

      But yes, I do claim that “mind” is just a convenient shorthand for some particularly complex relations between matter.

  6. Avatar photo GD says:

    Jon, Merv, and perhaps Lou,

    One of my favourite (translated) writings deals with Parmenides, an ancient Greek philosopher. One of the many reasons I enjoy these writings can best be stated by this quote from, “On Nature (Peri Physeos) by Parmenides of Elea (c. 475 B.C.)
    Edited by Allan F. Randall from translations by David Gallop, Richard D. McKirahan, Jr., Jonathan Barnes, John Mansley Robinson and others.:

    “The Goddess received me kindly, took my right hand in Hers, uttered speech and thus addressed me: “Youth, attended by immortal charioteers, who come to our House by these mares that carry you, welcome. For it was no ill fortune that sent you forth to travel this road (lying far indeed from the beaten path of humans), but Right and Justice. And it is right that you should learn all things, both the persuasive, unshaken heart of Objective Truth, and the subjective beliefs of mortals, in which there is no true trust. But you shall learn these too: how, for the mortals passing through them, the things-that-seem must ‘really exist’, being, for them, all there is.”

    The document then goes on to discuss “The Way of Objectivity (Aletheia)” which we nowadays speak as being and non-being, and so on. The introduction however shows how the ancient Greeks considered truth and their comprehension of the Divine as inseparable. It is more than irony that modern and post-modernity can so selectively pick and choose in these matters – for example, it is a sign of intellectual integrity, that if a person cannot accept, say, Parmenides as he has expressed himself, they then come up with an alternate philosophy. Instead they often copy bits and pieces that such previous thinkers have put forward, put their names on this, and claim insights and scientific progress. I am not advocating anything but honesty here – why not accept the obvious as stated in these documents? Or if they are not accepted, put forward you own different point of view!

  7. Avatar photo Merv Bitikofer says:

    GD, when you issue the challenge to “just accept the obvious as stated in these documents…”, which obvious statements do you have in mind? While I think I understand what

    Lou, I’m not so sure it is you that is “going farther than Jon” when you reject revelation as a way of knowing. What I hear Jon claiming is that there really is no purely objective way of knowing anything apart from substantial faith. And I don’t think he’s setting revelation apart as exempted from any such faith requirement, just as you are probably not exempting empirical science as being 100% free of subjectivity either. If I understand you correctly, you merely hold up science as the *best* way to escape subjectivity, and in doing so, tend to elevate science higher (at least in terms of its scope) than others of us here. In that regard, it may be your skepticism that has been checked at the door. Your given and again-anticipated rebuttal: (that independent convergences on apparently empirical truths demonstrate a higher probability that objective truth has been successfully appraised), does carry considerable weight, in matters of science. But it can’t deliver on your conjecture that the scope of “matters of science” knows no boundaries. Even within what I call “matters of science” science is not the only motivator or appraiser of “real” knowledge. It could turn out to be the most *effective* (note the logical circularity inherent to that word “effective”) referee/judge we have available within a limited scope, and some of us (I’ll include myself anyway) may even agree on this last proposition. But I don’t lose sight that this (predictive effectiveness and *seemingly* independent convergence = arrival at objective truth) remains a 100.0% metaphysical proposition. And I maintain it is a metaphysic that fits as easily (maybe even better!) within a theistic world view as it does within a materialist one.

    • Lou Jost says:

      You are setting up a straw man if you think I said “predictive effectiveness and *seemingly* independent convergence = arrival at objective truth”. I was clear that there is no guarantee that we ever actually have objective truth.

      But I do think that the scope of science is not as clearly demarcated as some here think. Science ends pretty much wherever decent evidence ends at a given time.

    • Avatar photo GD says:


      Perhaps your post related to my comment may have been cut of, but I will try to reply briefly to what I think you may be asking.

      The acceptance I am referring to, is an often observed reference to the divine when discussing philosophy of the ancients (in the case of the ancient Hellenics, their various gods). This reflected a belief that is espoused even to this day, in that the primary or first truth (just as the primal cause) is God, or the gods the Greeks prayed to. This is what Parmenides states as objective truth, and he then goes on to show that all else (more or less) is subjective and prone to human error.

      This is something akin to doctrinal philosophy, and Aquinas freely refers to the Philosopher (Aristotle) in his books Contra Gentiles, as this too is part of Aristotle’s philosophy (prime mover, primal cause, and so on). Aquinas in fact shows that the religious outlook can be seen in these philosophies, but of course they are non-Christians.

      Thus my statement (and not so much of a challenge) is that anyone who appears to rely on such notions of objective truths, and then who appeals to science for this, should make a solid case for such a stance – otherwise it looks as if they have substituted science in place of Parmenides’s goddess. If instead they argue against my statement, they surely ought to show they can present another philosophy – by this I mean contra Parmenides, Aristotle, and perhaps Plato. For example, the epicureans seem to have gone in a big way for the senses. This at least shows they went to the trouble of proposing their version or outlook. Thus, if those like Lou, treat science within a context that appears to at least conform to Parmenides’s notion of objectivity, they must show why they would do this when, as I said, they would appear to simply take out his goddess and substitute science in her place.

  8. Avatar photo Merv Bitikofer says:

    Thanks, GD. My comment was indeed cut off, and I can’t even blame technology. I just forgot to go back and finish my thought there. But I think you now clarified sufficiently for me in any case. I’m still climbing the learning curve of appreciating ancient philosophers and their influence on the development of our thought. I’m learning less, I’m afraid, from reading primary sources for myself, and more just from reading what writers like you and Jon bring to my attention. It would be interesting to hear the debates, if they happened between Parmedides and some of his atomist contemporaries (or near-contemporaries?). Lou will (rightly, I think) point out that such philosophical debates end in useless stalemate if there is no recourse to empirical verification available. But I would add that even now with much empirical evidence available, the underlying foundational truths sought in such debates is still a live question.

    Lou, I was trying to be careful as you usually are, to not represent your claims as having a sweepingly comprehensive nature, and so thanks for your clarification when I slipped and did just that. The thought I intended, which I think reflects your position was that such evidence gives the *best probability* of being *closest* to objective truth.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


      In the context of this series of posts, it’s not that the ancient philosophical debates ended in stalemate until proved, but that in modern times they gained new enthusiasts and formed the basis of the theories that advanced science.

      One could cite the Neo-Pythagoranism of Copernicus and Kepler, for example. But to stick to our context, take Newton and light, and you have an adherent of the “new” school of Boyle and Co, the corpuscularists, who on absolutely non-empirical grounds partly revived atomism (at that stage in a form that didn’t suppose a “standard” mimiumum particle called an atom). But it was an a priori decision to treat nature as a mechanism – and a ballistic one at that – rather than as an organism. One strong motive for that was the theological wish to deny final causation to anything but God – cf Ted Davis’ series at BioLogos.

      But they did believe (as a foundational, unobservable principle) that all of physics would resolve to the collisions of small particles of various sizes and velocities.

      So as I said in the Newton post, although he ostensibly despised hypotheses, in practice his notebooks show he was applying corpuscularism to light from the very start of his prism experiments, and was therefore not surprised to observe differential refraction once he attributed colour to particles of varying sizes or velocities.

      Now it turned out corpuscularism yielded the right answer for the wrong reasons, and the later wave theory worked better – see Maxwell’s discussion of that in the OP. But as far as his “physical” types of theory go (as opposed to the mathematical), physics is still largely playing out Democritus’ theme of atomism as co-opted for early modern science: and if not what is CERN seeking to collide to provide the fundamental truths of matter?

      The mathematical theoretical route, likewise, still has clear echoes of classical philsophical commitments: Paul Dirac (of whom more next post) is praised for persisting in holding to his equations despite lack of initial empirical validation because, he held, … a beautiful equation must be right. That’s pure Pythagoras, just as the idea of universal mathematical laws that, somehow, govern physical entities without being reducible to matter is pure Plato, and hugely problematic when it is believed as a non-theistic concept: where do these laws actually live, if not in matter? And if in matter, you’ve flipped from Plato to Aristotle, but you’re still in ancient Greek theism.

      I’m not sure where Maxwell’s “analogies” hail from – Aesop perhaps? 🙂

      • Lou Jost says:

        It’s not that a beautiful equation must be right. In physics, people churn out beautiful equations all the time. Einstein generated many in his later years.

        What physicists mean when they say that is something slightly more empirical and sensible than it sounds. Given a very complex set of data, if there is a simple and elegant equation that describes this complexity exactly, with few or no ad hoc adjustments, then this is very strong evidence for its correctness. It’s not Pythagorean, it’s more a sort of statement about information—“elegance” might be roughly measurable by the ratio of amount of information needed to specify all the empirical data, divided by the amount of information needed to describe the equation. Being able to express the richness of some important aspect of the universe in such a simple form is really really hard. When an equation achieves this, we are justified to suspect it has correctly plumbed some aspect of reality. (We then of course test it…)

        • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

          “I don’t suppose that applies so much to other physicists; I think it’s a peculiarity of myself that I like to play about with equations, just looking for beautiful mathematical relations which maybe don’t have any physical meaning at all. Sometimes they do.” Paul Dirac

    • Avatar photo GD says:


      It is not so much that some thinking is ancient and other not – indeed the great divide has been expressed as modernity and post-modernity, from classical thought. In the days of Newton, empiricism was taken more as a hope that scientific theories are either necessarily true or will eventually be shown by the power of science to be true. Kant made the initial push towards modern ways, by postulating a priori and a posteriori, the former necessarily true and the latter shown by experience. He went on with his analytical and synthetic, and so on. Today (I may need to be corrected here) I think Quinn has dismantled empiricism and few serious thinkers put such weight on this (although those who objectify science may persist in an odd outlook).

      Thus arguments that appear to put science as a source of truth, or as a means to access reality as the ultimate are exercises in hope. The real end result for atheists has been that everything comes from nothing as a happy accident of the nothingness called nature. Otherwise we are back to the labours of just about every thinker and culture that has existed on this planet – which has been either (a) what is truth? or (b) the primal truth is God.

      Thus my emphasis on freedom as the grounds for this – a human being is free to choose between a philosophy (a) or (b). It is dishonest for current proponents to pick bits and pieces from both and then claim they now have proof for their nonsense. I have referred to an atheist PoS, Rosenberg, to show that my VERY sketchy outline is not controversial, be people atheists or theists.

  9. Avatar photo Merv Bitikofer says:

    Well, GD, I won’t be in any position to correct you — I’m too busy learning from you. But when you mentioned “Quinn” dismantling empiricism, did you mean “Quine” as in Willard Van Orman Quine? His philosophy of science (from my wikipedia exposure to it just now) seems to have been to hold on to empiricism, but to do so in a modest way devoid of the ontological or metaphysical ambitions held by earlier positivists.

    • Avatar photo GD says:

      Merv, I do stand corrected, as it is the Quine you mentioned – my (lame) excuse is that it is many years since I looked at some of these matters, and thus my error. Quine seems to have rejected logical empiricism, but a good source imo for a general introduction is found in

      A general comment that may be relevant to this discussion is to note the arguments regarding the analytic and the synthetic, and meaning, has continued for some time. I guess the buzz word these days may be ‘holistic’. I stand by my general distinction between (a) an endless questioning regarding truth, and relying on ‘nothingness’, and (b) God is the primal or first truth.

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