(And the problem’s not the “U.”)

Consider (1) an ORANGE, (2) a TRAFFIC LIGHT, and (3) an AMERICAN FLAG. (Imagine these objects sitting on your shelf.)


These are REAL objects.  We can see, weigh, and hold them (the traffic light is, say, an old “collectible” you own).  If you’re miles away from your shelf, and no one else sees these objects, they’re still real.


REAL, REAL, REAL!  We are also REAL.  But none of these objects has any “real” colour*.  All are colourless.




[For MORE use the DOOR.]



How can “real things” have no color* if we can see the color?

And just what is color? Keith Ward (in More than Matter?**) reminds us, that physicists tell us that “color” is only a product of a message  sent by electromagnetic waves from an object to the cone cells in our eyes, and then relayed by nerve cells to the brain. If your eyes had no cones, you would see no color. You can’t wrap your arms around color and put it on a scale. And even more, some human eyes see colors quite differently (my father and I saw reds and greens differently), and some animals, like bulls, see no color at all. (It’s the “moving” cape, not the red, that makes him charge. The red adds to the drama for the spectators’ benefit.) Dogs, cats, and mice have weak color vision, seeing mainly tans. It’s black-and-white and grays they’re good at. Many birds, however, have color vision better than humans.

So if colors aren’t weighable and “real,” how should we think about them?

Physicists say they are invisible electromagnetic waves, real waves. When “white light” (all the colors) hits real objects, part of their energy is absorbed by the object, and part is reflected outward, away from it. Some of that “new reflected package” of energy is received by eyes. And color? The color the eyes detect is determined by (a) the part of the “electromagnetic package” sent to the viewer, and (b) the particular construction of the cone cells in the eye of the viewer.

Right now the plant in the pot in front of where I type is “leaning” toward the (almost white) sunlight from the window. The cones in my eyes are receiving pink and white from the flowers and green from the leaves.

Back to “real.”  If we choose to call color real, and that’s okay, then it’s not real in the same sense as a tasty orange, or a “collectable” traffic light, or an American flag*** (picture it flapping now in the breeze).

Now, be aware that “tastes,” “smells,” “wetness,” “how things feel,” and some other things that we “can’t hold” may also be considered real in the same way as we considered color!

But then if no messages are being sent along nerve cells to any brains anywhere, are the orange, traffic light, and flag really real in themselves?

We’ll cautiously say, “Yes, they are real.” Our reason: Their weights (masses, really****) remain the same. We could predict, and verify, by weighing the objects, and by leaving and coming back several times and reweighing them, to show that the results are the same.

Our consciousness and common sense convinces us that (1) we are real***** and (2) that certain things existing outside of us are also real, even though this reality may exist in least at 2 forms: some may be “weighable,” (and exist whether we’re there or not) and some “weightless,” which may depend in part upon weighable objects and the presence of, and characteristics of, the observer. 

[Please don’t blame Ward or physicists for these last generalizations. They are our words, imperfect, incomplete, but nonetheless expressing our common sense!]



* We just can’t go on in our discussion with the British “colour”! In deference to our quoting Ward, we spelled it his way. Now in our discussion we’re on our own. The word from now on is “color.”

** More Than Matter? What Humans Really Are (Lion, 2010).

*** Since I’m writing this on the American Independence Day, July 4, we find that our flag makes a suitable example!

**** “Weight,” of course, is a force that can vary with an (Earth) object’s distance from the center of the Earth. “Mass,” similar though less familiar and technically quite different, is the correct term here, and could be measured on a balance or in other ways.  Mass is, to say it crudely, a measure of the “stuff” in something, though the “shape” or volume of the stuff can vary according to temperature, especially with gases. Think here in terms of solids (relatively fixed in shape) or liquids whose volumes remain nearly the same, but taking the shape of their containers. Note, too, that our way of expressing “2 forms” of real things breaks down if we think about gases which seem to “float” and have no weight at all. But gases, with their atomic particles, do have mass (or stuff), and different gases have different amounts of mass, so they’re–generally, at least here–to be grouped with our orange, traffic light, and flag. If this still seems difficult, remember that in conditions of increasing pressure and much lower temperatures, gases can be changed into liquids and solids. Electromagnetic waves cannot be–or so we assume.

***** If you can’t convince yourself that you’re real, don’t worry about science! It won’t even matter. (Forgive us for not bogging down in a long technical definition of “real.”)