Color-Blindness, Dualism, and Eschatological Verification

Raymond Smullyan (1983) imagines a fantastic world which, by analogy, sheds some interesting light on the mind-body problem:

Imagine (if you can!) a world with the very curious property that any two objects have the same color if an only if they happen to have the same shape.  So, for instance, all

red objects are spherical and all spherical objects are red; all green objects are cubical and all cubical objects are green; and so forth.  Imagine also that half of the inhabitants of the world are completely color-blind, and the other half see colors perfectly.  In this word, color is the analogue of mental and shape is the analogue of physical.  Hence, the materialists are the color-blind, and the dualists are the color-sighted. . .

Smullyan ponders the kinds of metaphysical controversies that might arise on such a world.  The color-blind would say that there are only two properties of an object: size and shape.  The color-sighted would say that there is a third property that could not be reduced to the other two–a property called color.  The color-sighted people would be dismissed as mystics or metaphysical cranks who blather on about non-sense.  For, whenever a color-sighted person is asked to demonstrate the existence of this third property by distinguishing two objects by color, the color-blind person could make the same distinction by way of shape.  The color-sighted could never prove that color existed.  Smullyan further notes, “. . . [a]ll statements about colors would be translatable into statements about shapes (at least in the opinion of the color-blind!).

Smullyan then considers the possibility that on this world the color-sighted develop a dualist vocabulary with words that describe shape and other words that describe color.  He wrties:

A color-sighted person would say, “This object is both spherical and red, which is saying two very different things about it.”  The color-blind person would reply, “I still cannot understand your distinction between the words spherical and red.”  Imagine the theories that the color-sighted people might invent to account for the dual phenomena of shape and color!   Some might regard shape and color as different aspects or modes of the same underlying substance.  Others might marvel that God has preordained some miraculous harmony between shapes and colors.  Then there would arise an identity theory that would maintain that despite the possible difference between the meaning of the words color and shape, colors and shapes themeseles were nevertheless the same things.  Of course, the color-blind people would have no idea what the metaphysicians were talking about. (Smullyan 1983, 77).

What is most interesting of all in this analogy is if one of the color-sighted individuals were to travel in a spacecraft to a normal world, like Earth.  This astronaut would see spheres of all colors, cubes of all colors, etc.  If the astronaut were to return to their home planet, he or she might exclaim, “On this alien world some spheres are cubical!”  In other words, the astronaut is saying that some spheres are green.  Smullyan imagines the response of the color-blinded to be, “What do you mean by this nonsense?  How can something be both spherical and cubical? . . . [w]hat kind of mystical, dialectical nonsense is this?  We all know that the statement, ‘A spherical object is not cubical,’ is analytic–it is necessarily true” (Smullyan 1983, 77).

This little thought experiment is supposed to give us a sense of what may be going on in the mind-body debates between dualists and naturalistic “monists”.  It brings to mind John Hick’s response to the logical positivism of his day, eschatological verification.  Hick believes that the claims of mystics and saints are not meaningless and can, in principle, be verified.  If, when we die, we have an afterlife, it is possible that we could test whether that which the mystics and saints claim is true.  If we die and that’s it, then nothing can be verified. The point is that supernatural claims could, in theory, be verified and so could not be utterly meaningless.

Smullyan’s thought experiment sheds new light on eschatological verification.  Dying may be like visiting another world where colors and shapes are not strongly correlated.  In death, the duality of nature may be revealed to us.  This might account for the perplexing descriptions of mystical experiences and why some mystical experiences are literally ineffable.  So if Smullyan’s analogy holds, even seemingly contradictory statements made by mystics could be true.  That’s amazing, if you ask me.

1R. Smullyan. 1983. 5000 B.C. and other philosophical fantasies. New York: St. Martin Press.


Posted on August 4, 2011, in Meaning of Life and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. I bought the book last month. Ray is great, isn’t he?


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