Tag Archives: philosophy

physical and perceptual colour?

Consider the image below:

The four grey patches in the centre of the four squares are phsyically the same. If seen in isolation (or against a common background) they would look the same. So are the grey colours the same or different? 

Some people would argue the two greys are really different (this is convincing because after all they look different). However, others would argue that they are the same colour – it’s just an illusion that they look different because of the background and context. Which is right? Actually, I think both are correct. The former would be talking about perceptual colour and the latter would be talking about physical colour. Part of the reason that colour is so complex and that there seem to be so many ideas that clash is that colour is not very well defined. When people talk about colour they are sometimes talking about different things. I am wondering whether it would be really helpful to develop more formally the ideas of physical and perceptual colour.

In case on your screen the greys look more similar that they do on my screen I append another example of colour contrast below.

In this example, there are only two physical colours (red and green) or three (if you include white). However, perceptually there are two reds and two greens.

The rays are not coloured

So when Newton wrote that the rays are not coloured, what exactly did he mean?

Well, he meant that even though we may say loosely that light at 400nm is blue and light at 700nm is red this implies that the blueness and the redness are properties of light.  Although there are philosophical arguments that would support colour as a property of light (and we’ll get on to those arguments in a later post) for now I would like to put forward my view (which is, I believe, consistent with Newton’s) that colour is not the property of light.

The evidence that supports my view is that light at 700nm may look red to most people most of the time, it doesn’t look red to all of the people most of the time or even to most of the people all of the time. For a very striking example please consider the image below:


In this example, you will see some blue spirals and some green spirals. But physically the blue and green are the same. In terms of wavelengths, exactly the same wavelengths (in exactly the same proportions) are being reflected from the areas that you perceive as being green and the those you perceive as being blue. If you think in terms of digital (RGB) terms, the RGB values of the green areas and the blue areas are the same – both are about R = 9, G = 20, B = 160. We know now that the colour that you perceive for a wavelength of light or a group of wavelengths depends upon the colours that are close by. This is often expressed as contrast or assimilation. When contrast occurs colours become less like the colours that they are next to an image; when assimilation occurs colours become more like the colours that they are next to. Contrast and assimilation effects result in you seeing two colours, a blue and a green, when physically only one colour exists.

Straight away some of you can see that I am falling into loose language straight away because I am using colour in two different ways. On the one hand I am saying the two colours are physically the same and on the other hand I am saying that the two colours are perceptually different (blue and green). Which is it? It all depends upon how you define colour. My stance is that I define colour as a perceptual phenomonon – it’s something we see and experience. Others may argue that the two colours are really the same and that it is a mere illusion that they look different – I, on the other hand, would argue that the two colours are different. It’s not an illusion – you see a blue and a green, don’t you?

This is what Newton was referring to when he said that “to speak properly, the rays are not coloured” – I believe that Newton was aware of this problem with language – that colour can be used to represent several things. But when we speak properly we realise that the rays are not coloured.