Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Is A Sunset Beautiful If No-One Sees It?

Is a sunset beautiful if no-one sees it?

This was from an earlier post:

*Do you think sunsets were any less beautiful before humans were around to witness it?

I said: "Well, since colors do not exist in objects themselves, but in the eye's processing of light wavelengths, I think a good case could be made, on the basis of naturalism being true, that they probably weren't very beautiful. Take the colors out of them, and what are you left with?"

I was then told:  "Since stars ~do~ emit radiation the subsequent sunset would still be beautiful regardless of whether a human is there to see it.

I want to have another "go" at this. This falls into the intersection between science and philosophy.  Objects do not, in and of themselves, possess the quality of color. Color occurs when light bounces off of surfaces.  But, my understanding (correct me if I'm wrong) is that current scientific theory says that the color still does not actually exist until eyes exist which translate the light-waves into what we see as colors.

I came across this at Ed Feser's blog:

"If we want to redefine the “red” of a fire engine in terms of how its surface reflects photons at certain wavelengths, we can say that the fire engine is red. But if by “red” we mean the way red “looks” to us when we perceive it, then nothing like that exists in the fire engine, which is (if we think of color in these commonsense terms) intrinsically “colorless.” And so on for sounds, tastes, and all the rest. Color, odor, taste, sound, and the like – again, as common sense understands them (rather than as redefined for purposes of physics) – are reinterpreted by mechanism as projections of the mind, existing only in consciousness. This is the origin of the “qualia problem,” and the puzzle now becomes how to relate these “qualia” or “phenomenal properties” to the intrinsically colorless, odorless, tasteless particles that make up the brain just as much as they do external material objects." -- Edward Feser, here.

Tentative conclusions:

#1. To the extent that the beauty of a sunset is in its dazzling display of colors, unless there is an entity around that is producing the sensation of color in its mind, the sunset is not, arguably, beautiful in and of itself.  (Some Christian philosophers dispute this notion that the sensation of color exists only in the mind.)

#2.  Beauty is a concept. Concepts reside in the mind. Without a mind to conceptualize beauty, it is an incoherent concept. Beauty cannot exist where there are no minds.

So, in response to the atheist jab, "do you think sunsets were any less beautiful before humans were around to witness it?", my answer would be that the atheist must answer "yes", because a) the essential beauty of a sunset lies in the colors projected, and colors are produced inside the mind (according to current scientific theory), and b) because beauty is a mental concept, and according to atheists, minds did not exist prior to the emergence of life.

* * *

We depend on mind to conceive of reality --including past reality -- to a greater extent than we tend to realize.

To the theist, the universe has never been without Mind, because a supervening Mind created it and sustains it. Because the Creator saw his creation, and saw that it was good, the theist can argue that sunsets have always been beautiful because they were created by a Creator who is himself beautiful; they were created "for his pleasure", and the Creator always beholds ("sees") his creation.

But, to the atheist, there was a time when mind was not, and sunsets were not beautiful.


jonathan said...

"Objects do not, in and of themselves, possess the quality of color."

As I pointed out earlier objects do, in and of themselves, possess the quality of color. The chemcial and molecular construction of the object will decide what its color is despite if you are there to view it or not. Because no one is there to view it does not mean the color ceases to exist. Take plants for instance. The reason the leaf is green is because the plant is absorbing the red and blue spectrum of light and reflecting back green; not only into our eyes but also into the surrounding environment even if we didn't view it. If you were to look at a graph of the photosynthesis spectrum you would see the following:

1. There is a peak in the blue spectrum, which also leads towards the violet end (absorbed)
2. There is a valley in the green to orange spectrum (reflected)
3. There is a peak in the red spectrum (absorbed

This absorbing the red and blue spectrum while reflecting the green is purely because of the plants chemical and molecular makeup.

"But, my understanding (correct me if I'm wrong) is that current scientific theory says that the color still does not actually exist until eyes exist which translate the light-waves into what we see as colors."

It is incorrect because the wavelengths being reflected will exist even if not viewed. However, it is true that each individual will see the colors differently because of their biology, but the light being reflected will consist of photons, and these photons will be at a specific wavelength, and these specific wavelengths will contribute to the color. For example, the wavelength for blue is 480-460 nanometers. Since this color has a measurable wavelength you could say that in order for it to only exist in the presence of eyes would require you to get rid of the photons existing at that wavelength (in the absence of eyes), which equates to subtracting that specific spectrum of light from the total spectrum of light; in essence you would end up subtracting all visible spectrums of light which subsequently equals a total lack of light in the visible spectrum.

Because of the physical properties of an object to either absorb or reflect the visible spectrum of light we can say that objects do possess the quality of color. To equate color with only existing in the mind because we view it would mean that we would have to remove the objects physical properties.

"But, to the atheist, there was a time when mind was not, and sunsets were not beautiful."

Technically in the sense that beauty is an abstract, intangible thought and requires a mind to apply it then yes, they wouldn't be beautiful, however this does NOT mean that they would be devoid of color. I can, however, use the abstract concept of beauty to IMAGINE what it would look like and I imagine it would be quite beautiful. This doesn't require a god to imagine what it would look like, or to imagine if it was beautiful.

RkBall said...


Thanks for the re-post. It took some time for you to do this, and I appreciate it. (Plus I'm glad that you are still reading the Ball Bounces!)

I think we agree that:

1) according to science, redness as a property does not exist in the object itself.

2) the color red appears as a result of light bouncing off e.g., a "red apple".

I've also read this:

"Redness" is a sense, or sensation or "quale" produced in the brain that humans get to experience (and enjoy).

So, we have at least some kind of distinction or potential distinction between your positing of the color red objectively existing in the light-refracted object vs. the subjective experience of this as a quale inside the mind.

If the brain gives us the sensation of "redness", It's hard for me to get my brain around what the color red would be with the "redness" drained out of it!

I believe what Feser is saying is that objects possess all the physics of color (as you have articulated so well) but not the actual "redness" sensation, which is produced by the brain.

I think that Feser believes that objects do actually possess color as a characteristic, but because his belief is informed by Christian philosophy rather than mechanistic science.

But, you are probably right. It is difficult for humans to imagine reality unfiltered through the human brain and mind.

I'll accept your account as scientifically accurate unless/until someone else provides additional input.

"... nothing intellectually compelling or challenging.. bald assertions coupled to superstition... woefully pathetic"