Friday, February 27, 2015
The Dress of Many Colors and Philosophical Skepticism
If you've somehow missed the biggest thing on the internet this week and yet have improbably stumbled upon my humble blog, check out this excellent description and analysis from iO9 of the dress that's breaking the internet by dividing people into gold-and-white versus black-and-blue camps. Many people have been deeply troubled by this affair, either because they are staunchly committed to their own color perception or because they feel insecure about their own grasp on something as basic as color vision.
But I've been relatively unsurprised by the whole thing. The senses aren't completely reliable, and I'm not particularly troubled by this fact. This is largely because of the time I've spent thinking about philosophical skepticism.
When I teach texts with skeptical themes about the senses from authors like Cicero, Vasubandhu, and Montaigne, I like to show my students examples of optical illusions (this website for kids is a great collection of optical illusions). Usually I can get students to admit to having auditory illusions (like thinking your cell phone is buzzing when it's not) or illusions of other senses (tasting something after brushing your teeth, etc.). If our senses can be so easily tricked, why do people trust them so much? Is seeing really believing?
Some philosophers have been deeply troubled by these issues. After all, if something so basic as our sensory knowledge of the world can go wrong so easily, what does this say about our knowledge in general, much of which seems far more tenuous than basic stuff like knowing the color of a dress? Philosophers in the realist schools of classical Indian philosophy (especially Nyāya and Mīmāṃsā) have responded with views intended to safeguard our everyday knowledge. Western philosophers from Stoics to René Descartes to G. E. Moore have tried to take on skeptical challenges head on.
Other philosophers have perhaps been initially troubled by such issues, but have learned to accept our limitations. People like Nāgārjuna, Sextus, Jayarāśi, and Hume have found the fragility of knowledge, whether from the senses or from reasoning, to be liberating. As Cicero, a defender of the ancient Greek school of Academic skepticism, put it: those who accept that our grasp of things is limited are "freer and less constrained." Skeptics don't have to worry about defending a particular view, such as whether that dress is really gold and white or blue and black, and they are free to change their minds about what seems most plausible at the time. So if the dress looks one way at one time and another way at another time, it's nothing to get upset about. Skeptics may also get a boost from contemporary scientific understandings of optical illusions and the fact that color is not actually out in the world (it's almost all in your mind).
So, if the color of that dress is bothering you, perhaps a dose of skeptical therapy might help.
For the record: When I first looked at the dress it looked gold and white, but later it looked black and blue when I tilted my laptop screen. Now it switches back and forth. In addition to my skeptical proclivities, since I was a kid I've had very low confidence in my color distinguishing abilities (maybe this softened me up for skepticism at a young age!). I don't think I have regular color-blindness, but people who know me are often amused at how bad I am at distinguishing some colors, especially "close" colors like certain shades of blue and purple.