Colors, Continuums, and Confusion

The continuum is a formidable opponent. Just when we think an issue is black and white, the continuum turns everything into a shade of grey. What is a continuum? Simple: it’s the boundary between red and pink.

In other words, it’s a blurry spectrum. There is no objective boundary between red and pink; the colors blend together. Take a blob of red paint. Keep adding white. At some point, you’ll end up with pink, but it’s not clear when. Before you see pink, you’ll see a red, then a light red, then a really-light-red-but-not-quite-pink, then an almost-pink-but-not-quite pink.

It seems innocuous, but this principle of blurry boundaries presents serious logical problems for many ideas. Blurry lines lead to blurry language and blurry theories. If we’re to speak precisely, we need clear distinctions between “this” and “that”.  If we’re unable to create clear boundaries, our concepts need refinement; we cannot pretend “red” is a precise color if its definition can never be pinned down.

Continuums are precisely the reason why objects do not exist as independent things. The only way to have a clear understanding of an “object” is to realize all objects are concepts – they do not exist without minds. If we try to preserve the idea of independent objects, we run into all sorts of logical and absurd problems (like the sand pile – at what point does adding one grain of sand bring a “pile” into existence?)

But continuums are not only troublesome for objects. They crop up in many different areas. I was having a conversation with a friend just the other day; we were talking about ethics and politics. He said I was too reliant on continuum problems in legal theory – “Just because we can’t perfectly distinguish between yellow and orange” he said, “doesn’t mean we can’t distinguish between orange and blue.”

This is an important error. He was saying, essentially, “Just because some moral and legal issues don’t have clear boundaries, doesn’t mean boundaries don’t exist at all.” His example was the age of consent. At what age does it become OK to sleep with a female? Everybody on earth would say, “A 25-year old woman can consent to sleep with a 25-year old man.” But what if she’s 18? 16? 14? 10? 6? Nearly everybody on earth would agree a 6-year old girl cannot consent to sleep with a 25-year old. So, we’re presented with a continuum problem – what appears to be grey blurriness bookended by clear truths (i.e. maybe a 14 or 15-year old can consent, give or take. But clearly a 4-year old cannot consent, while a 25-year old can).

My resolution to these problems is the same as it is with objects. The boundaries do not actually exist. There is no “objective color” – no “red” or “pink” – and neither is there an “objective age of consent.” We can only avoid the continuum by eliminating it.

Though it might sound odd initially, the resolution is actually quite simple: a “color” is simply a label attached to an experience. It is not an independent “thing”.

So, “seeing red” is not actually seeing a “thing-called-red”, or seeing “objective redness.”  It’s experiencing something that you call “seeing red”.

It’s the subjective experience we label as different colors. The experience of “pink” is different than the experience of “red”.

But what about the wavelength of light? Can’t we be precise in referencing “red” as “light with a wavelength of around 650nm”? No, we cannot, for the same reason an “object” cannot be identical to its constituent particles. If 650nm is a precise color, then 651nm is an objectively different color. As is 650.5nm, and 650.001nm. If we correlate colors to wavelengths, we’ll end up with a virtually-infinite amount of colors – the differences indistinguishable to the human eye. Granted it’s a logical possibility, but it seems absurd.

That doesn’t mean wavelengths aren’t correlated with colors. We can precisely say, “wavelengths around 650-750nm correlate with the experience of what-we-call-redness.” That way, whether it’s 650nm or 651nm, what matters is the experience taking place, not the actual wavelength – both sizes could meaningfully be associated with the exact same “red”, as an experience.

Also, this allows for a different feeling of redness by different people. It’s an age-old philosophic question: does what I call “red” look the same way to you? Or, have we simply been trained to use the same word, even though “redness” looks different to both of us?

Understanding colors as experiences entirely avoids the issue. It doesn’t matter whether or not your “red” looks the same way – we’re using the word “red” to reference your subjective experience, not some objective experience, wavelength, or “color”.

Thus, we revisit the red-into-pink example. At what point does the red become pink? Simple: at whatever point it looks that way. There is no objective boundary at all! And to some, what looks “pink” will undoubtedly be labeled “light red” by others. But that’s no mystery when we understand colors as labels for our experiences.

Naturally, this also solves the legendary dress problem. What color is the dress – black and blue, or white and gold?


The answer? The dress doesn’t have a color – it creates an experience in your mind which you merely label as “white and gold” or “black and blue”.

Alright, enough about colors. What about the age of consent? Simple: there is no objective age of consent. Each case is different. Age is merely a convenient concept; it’s not the fundamental principle we care about – it’s only a correlate. What matters is maturity and development, of which age is a gauge.

The reason a 4-year old cannot consent is not because she’s four. Rather, it’s because four year olds aren’t mature or developed enough to make these kinds of decisions. It might be true that all 4-year olds are incapable of consenting – but that doesn’t mean it’s because they are four.

The same is true of the 25-year old. Age cannot be the only factor at play – it’s a correlate. Imagine the near-comatose, mentally-handicapped 25-year old. Can she consent? Of course not. Even a 50-year old woman might have severe enough development issues to render her unable to consent.

What about the 13-year old? Well, it depends on the individual case. Age is a rule-of-thumb, not an absolute rule. What if the 13-year old has already graduated college? If she’s already taken care of her family members for several years? What if she had a genetic abnormality which meant she developed at a much faster pace than normal? Many marriages throughout history began as young teenagers – or younger. Were they all objectively immoral?

Again, I would say the only way to deal with the continuum problem is to get rid of it entirely. There is no objective age of consent, because the underlying principles aren’t about age – they are about maturity and development. There is no objective “color”, because every “color” is a label for a subjective experience. And there are no “objects”, because an “object” is simply a word we use to reference an assortment of particles; without a mind, they wouldn’t exist.

Granted, we can superficially eliminate the continuum, by acting as if our concepts have objective existence. And it’s very convenient to do so. Society might function more smoothly when people believe objects exists, and laws can be much less nuanced when we create a monolithic “drinking age” or mandatory age minimums for automobile licensing. A judge doesn’t have to rule each time a young teenager wants to get his driving permit; if he’s too young, he can’t get one, regardless of his maturity or development.

But we should not mistake convenience for metaphysical accuracy. From my perspective, precision is always preferable to blurriness, and for this reason, we should treat continuum problems with the utmost seriousness. More likely than not, whenever they appear, it’s a sign that our concepts need to be re-framed in a more careful way.