Sunday, March 29, 2015

Color and the dress

Does the Great Dress Debate of 2015 suggest that colors are subjective? If we can’t agree on the color, does it follow that color is in the eye of the beholder?

For those who use their time more productively than in following internet bunfights, here’s the story:

I profess color realism, so I claim the dress has a color – two, actually.

It’s blue with black stripes.

However, the debate does provide insight into how we see the colors that really are there.

The argument for color realism is long, so consider the following ‘Ten Theses of Color Realism’ nailed, unargued-for, on the cathedral door.
1. An account of Everything That Is So must include not just physical things, but how they appear. To deny this is so costly that no consideration scientific or philosophical is powerful enough to compel it.
So eliminativism is not in the running: it takes too much of Neurath’s Ship apart at one time.
2. If there were no living creatures there would be no appearances. But this does not imply that appearances are somehow derivatively real, like shadows or reflections.
If there were no water there would be no living creatures either, but we’re not like shadows or reflections.
3. The concept of color incorporates two elements: one having to do with appearances, the other with whatever it is about the object’s possession of the color property that makes it appear that way. So our concept of color is of an objective property, the nature of which is revealed in its appearance.
This twofold feature is the source of the ‘queerness’ arguments for error theory (see 5 below). Those arguments presuppose that all properties are physical, thus begging precisely the question at issue.
4. Reductive physicalism regarding color founders on a stark contrast with other reductive programs. Given the state of scientific knowledge, if water were not H2O, there simply is no other candidate. We would be completely at a loss. But for color there is a whole cat’s chorus of candidates, none strikingly more plausible than the others, all agreeing on which property goes with which color. Choosing one as the property necessarily identical with color would be arbitrary. Therefore none are.
General agreement on the science combined with non-converging disagreement on the reduction shows that, short of a paradigm change in physics, the nature of color will not be settled by science.

It’s philosophy.
5. Error theory, the standard view since Galileo, falters because it fails a presupposition necessary for stating the view. Error theory cannot supply an explanation, meeting current externalist standards, for how we can have formed the concept of ‘red’ in the absence of anything red.
If a philosophical position must be statable, error theory is not in the running either.
6. A thing’s color supervenes on its physical composition. Since different physical arrangements may yield the same color, the supervenience relation is weak. It’s also not ‘physicalistically kosher.’ Physically indiscernible things could be different colors in other possible worlds with the same physical laws as ours, but different psycho-physical bridge laws.
To use Terence Horgan’s term, it’s not a case of ‘superdupervenience.’
7. An explanation for a thing’s appearing red is that is, indeed, red. We can misidentify what color it is, of course, but getting it wrong presupposes that there is something to get right. This is relevant to the Dress Debate.
8. Facts about color are facts about an autonomous realm over and above the physical realm. In this it resembles evolutionary biology. The explanation for why I am seeing red in a given case cannot be given in physical terms any more than we can explain in purely physical terms why one phenotypic trait confers fitness and another doesn’t.
9. The color realm is autonomous because no consideration intruding from outside the forms of explanation peculiar to that realm can compel us to retract a color judgment. Coming to believe that we are being exposed to 650 nanometer electromagnetic radiation does precisely nothing to weaken our conviction that the object is red. This suggests a high degree of autonomy.
10. We can know objective truths about color by observation: red is more similar to purple than either is to green. We can formulate autonomous laws of color that express necessities, and even support counterfactuals. The laws will prescind from any physical base. Again, in this it is similar to the realm of evolutionary biology.
An essay by psychologist Steven Pinker provides a brief explanation of the relevant autonomous laws of color.[1] Notice that it is couched in explicitly psychological terms: “lightness constancy,” “color constancy.” Both are instances of representational constancy, for which there is no physicalist account. Pinker speaks metonymically of “the brain” achieving representational constancy instead of the visual system, but we shouldn’t be confused.

Pinker’s conclusion is congenial to the color realist: The color of an object can appear a different color under “extreme” conditions, conditions removed from those our visual system evolved to handle. We can then become badly confused over what color the object really is.

To be a realist regarding some realm is to resign oneself to imperfect epistemic access to it. That our access to real things, including colors, is fallible and imperfect was never a thesis in dispute.

Thomas Pyne
Department of Philosophy
Sacramento State


Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Sexual purity: A dirty idea

So have you ever heard of a purity ball?

It's sort of like a prom, but with a twist: daughters are accompanied by their fathers, instead of their boyfriends. There, they enjoy music, eat, drink, and dance... and then these young girls pledge to remain sexually abstinent, or 'pure', until their wedding day.

Other than sounding weirdly out-of-date, like bride-prices and trousseaus, anything else bother you about this concept?

What does this concept of 'purity' mean?

The idea seems to be that if you've never had sex with someone, you're more virtuous, more worthy, more desirable, more ....clean.

But what does this imply? That if you do have sex with someone, you've become, somehow, 'impure'? That it makes you dirty, less desirable, less worthy, less virtuous, less worthy of respect, maybe even less valuable as a person?

This idea that engaging in one of the most social, most cooperative, most intimately friendly actions that human beings enjoy with one another can ever make you 'impure', has been a bee in my bonnet ever since I began to question what the idea of sexual purity, like the Cult of the Virgin, really stands for. For ages, human belief systems have equated virginity, especially of women, with sacredness. The stories of the birth of Horus, of the Buddha, of many of the Greek gods, of Jesus, all illustrate this obsession many of the world's cultures, and especially religions, have had with virginity. (The virgin birth of the Buddha seems to be a later addition: early Buddhist texts honor the Buddha's father, as his natural father, as well.) These gods and heroes are made out to be more special, better than mere ordinary human beings, at least partly because their mothers didn't create them with the help of another human being. Gods and saints have been more revered, and brides' dowries have been higher, so long as they or their mothers are virgins.

So what does this say about our attitude towards human beings?

'How about respect?' one might ask. 'How about the idea that we should practice self-control, that we should respect each other's bodies, and not 'use' each other for our own selfish pleasure?' I answer: this is both an important issue, and an entirely separate one. Sexuality, for human beings, is generally a deeply emotional thing, unlike most other animals (so far as we know). For us, it's intertwined with the need for closeness, for intimacy, for feeling more alive, for just plain feeling good. In short, it's one of the most richly sociable activities we engage in. And we can easily hurt each other through with sex, when we lie to our partners, when we make promises we don't keep, when we profess love to get what we want only to show indifference afterwards, and worst of all, when we inflict pain and violate their right to self-determination through rape. We expect each other to practice sexual self-control, and we are right to condemn 'using' anyone as a mere tool for our exclusive pleasure.

But sex outside of marriage is more often friendly, affectionate, respectful, mutually exciting, and consensual than not. Most of the time, it's a good and valuable thing, not only for its own sake, but for what it can teach us about being good partners not only for the evening, but for life. And even when it's not, when we use our sexuality selfishly, or to harm or deceive others, our bad behavior has no impact at all on their integrity or worth. We may be said to make ourselves 'impure' through our disrespect, dishonesty, cruelty, or violence; we may metaphorically be said to sully our own moral characters by wronging another. Yet we don't have purity balls in which we pledge not to sully ourselves by lying, stealing, cheating, or murdering. There's no Cult of the Honest Woman, no god or prophet honored by virtue of their mother's never haven stolen anything. And we don't ever imply that we can be made impure if others lie to, steal from, or cause harm to us. It's sex that's been so widely singled out and associated with the concept of transmissible purity and impurity in so many of the world's ideologies, cultures, and religions, for reasons that are no longer useful, and no longer morally defensible.

When I look at the belief systems that sacralize virginity, it seems the common denominator is the inheritance of values from tribal, patriarchal cultures, in which life was wrested out of the land with great difficulty, where infant mortality was high and competition for territory was fierce. Keeping tight control over women helped ensure one's bloodline was unmixed with that of competitors, and worthy of protection by the head of the household and the tribe. The mythology of purity and impurity, of ritual, superstition, and prohibition surrounding human sexuality is such an effective method of social control that they persist in many cultures and belief systems even to this day. Over the years, the justifications have changed, but attitudes remain the same.

Yet much of the world's population has long since left that harsh ancestral world behind, and we are in an age in which personal liberty and individual human worth and dignity are valued like never before. Murder, theft, assault, and sexual coercion and violence are vilified and illegal, and most societies now go out of their way to ensure individuals can express their personalities and pursue their own goals as much as possible, in safety and security. We also care to understand how and why our social institutions and practices can enrich and beautify human life, and to celebrate them, from conversation, humor, and storytelling, to music and fine arts, to dining with friends, family, and allies, to sex itself, as countless scholarly volumes, scientific studies, and works of art and literature attest.

I argue that this view of human nature, in which human beings are understood as both individually valuable and thorough goingly social, doesn't have room for this concept of sexual purity and impurity. In fact, to say sex with another human being can ever make you impure is just about the most personally insulting and antisocial idea one can express: the claim that the touch of another human being can make you dirty is an attack on human dignity itself.

It undermines the concept of personal responsibility, in which we are morally accountable for what we do and not for what a person does to us. It treats sex as a thing that is corrupt and evil outside of a narrow context, in a way totally divorced from what we've discovered about the history, evolutionary biology, and psychology of human sexuality. It reveals a deep scorn for human nature, in which sexuality is as basic a component as rationality, language, the need to survive, to feel pleasure, to matter, and to find love and companionship. And it implies that human beings are innately corrupt, dirty, wicked things. only redeemed by virtue of distancing themselves from their own humanity.

Just as I reject all of these, so I reject the idea of sexual purity. And I think you should, too, if you believe that human beings are valuable and worthy of respect for their own sake.

Amy Cools
Sacramento State Philosophy Alumna

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Check yourself before you wreck yourself

The process of checking something requires adding a second mode of analysis—e.g. reflection, rational inquiry, problem solving, measurement, etc.—to see if there is converge or divergence between modes. If there’s convergence, then our result sticks. If there’s divergence, they don’t.

Think of something like trying to figure out if you are seeing a mirage. You see it, but when you try to touch it, you can’t. The modes (vision and touch) diverge in results. We draw the conclusion that the mirage is not a real object. But are multiple modes of analysis always a good method of checking something? Additionally, under what circumstances are multiple modes not a good method? 

These questions can be made more substantial by thinking about the following tension: Folk wisdom tells us that two heads are better than one But we also know that when many people get together and think, there’s a risk of cognitive herding behavior. The former means to highlight the idea that there is added cognitive machinery when individual agents partner up to think. The latter means to highlight the synchronization of machines when agents partner up to think. In this post, I’d like to draw attention to, as well as illustrate a simple methodological tool for understanding how multiple modes can be used to check each other’s results. This applies to both the scientific context as well as our daily lives.

Let’s start with the scientific context. Replication seems like a scientific virtue. The more instances of corroboration we have the stronger our evidential set seems to be. But replication is not always virtuous. Here’s a simple example.

For a few, very exciting, months it seemed as though physicists had detected particles that travelled faster than the speed of light. A group of physicists generated muon neutrinos at the Super Proton Synchrotron (SPS) particle accelerator at the CERN LHC complex in Geneva (Amelino-Camelia 2012). They accelerated these neutrinos down a 1 km beam line toward the Gran Sasso National Laboratory in Italy. Incredibly, neutrinos travelling from CERN to Gran Sasso were measured to make the trip 60.7 nanoseconds faster than light speed. The measurement procedure was very carefully planned. For example, time was measured with GPS timing signals and a cesium atomic clock. The GPS also allowed the physicists to track any small movements in the Earth itself. Even factors such as day vs. night and seasonal trends were taken into account. One of the most important and interesting facts about the methodology is that the experiment was repeated 15,000 times! Additionally, later experiments, checking for systematic error by fiddling with different proton pulse profiles, seemed to replicate the results.

It seems as though each trial (and each replication) serves as a “check” on the other trials. However, this fails to be case of good methodological checking. The reason is the repeated/replicated measurement procedures are not independent. It was discovered (Cartlidge 2012) that the 60 nanoseconds discrepancy came from a poor connection between a fiber optic cable that connects the GPS receiver (used to correct the timing of the neutrinos' flight) with an electronic card in a computer. The connection was tightened and the faster-than-light neutrinos were no more. Each of the 15,000 trials could not serve as a “check” for other trials because they all suffer from the same systematic mistake. To properly check results, we need independence of modes.

The independence of modes is something that we can experiment on in a very simple way. Have a large group of people guess your weight without debating with each other about any of the factors. The likely result is that when you add up and average everyone’s guess, you will get a number very close to your actual weight. The reason why this works is because some people guess low, others guess high, and the error cancels out. But each person’s error is independent of another person’s error. As long as this is the case, then multiple heads are better than one.

But what if you’re not dealing with multiple individuals or multiple sources of information? How does independence of modes apply to you? The title of the post is, after all, about you checking yourself. The next example will give us a simple view of modes and independence.

MacArthur Wheeler robs a bank in broad daylight (Kruger and Dunning 2009). He does not wear a mask and is captured within an hour. When captured, he is in complete shock, “But I wore the juice.” Wheeler believed that putting lemon juice on his face would make him invisible to cameras. He arrived at this conclusion by, what seemed to be, good checking methods. He put lemon juice on his face and took a series of selfie-polaroids. In this case, each photo seems to be an independent mode of measurement. In the results of the polaroids, Wheeler was nowhere to be found. How could all of the photos converge on this result? Simple: What compromises the independence of each measurement process is Wheeler’s systematic stupidity. Wheeler is the engineer behind each measurement process and the interpretation of each result. As such, he is part of the design, implementation, and interpretation of each measurement process. So whatever mistakes he makes, he continues to make, unless an independent engineer steps in and corrects them. This is what is referred to as the Dunning-Kruger Effect: general incompetence produces lack of awareness of incompetence. Think for a moment, though: consistent with the Dunning-Kruger effect, checking yourself is something that everyone can reflect on, and nothing that anyone can truly do for themselves.

We've come to the conclusion that checking requires the independence of modes. We have illustrated what kinds of independence are good for checking. The next step is defining independence of modes. Not only is it important to specify conditions for independence, but it is also important to characterize what kind of independence is sufficient (e.g. partial vs. full independence).

Work Cited:

Amelino-Camelia, G., (2011). OPERA data. Phenomenology of Philosophy of Science. arXiv: 1206.3554v1[physics.hist-ph]

Cartlidge, Edwin, (2012). BREAKING NEWS: Error Undoes Faster-Than-Light NeutrinoResults.

J. Kruger, D. Dunning (2009). Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One's Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments. Psychology, 1 (2009), pp. 30–46

Vadim Keyser
Department of Philosophy
Sacramento State

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Living in the Garden, Part II

This is a continuation of an earlier post, in which I argued that the theist should reject an anthropocentric environmental ethic— one in which human interests alone dictate our interaction with the environment. I turn my attention now to the possibility that theistic ethics is committed to deep ecology, which asks us to consider all of the elements of the natural environment as having intrinsic value.

I began to take deep ecology seriously on a trip to Lassen Volcanic National Park. In the park there is a cinder cone—a small mountain of volcanic ash. The park service constructed a spiral path up to its summit which nicely complemented the shape of the cone. Sadly, some hiker, reaching the top of the cinder cone, took the short way down, and left deep scars in its side.

It seemed to me that the errant hiker had done something wrong. This is easy to explain in anthropocentric terms: He had diminished the enjoyment that future visitors would have in viewing the cone. But my sense was that the wrong he did went beyond that. I found it hard to account for this intuition, however. It makes little sense to say that he harmed the mountain. One can argue that animals are entitled to moral consideration because they are sentient, or because they have interests. But mountains do not feel pain, nor do they have goals. Can a mountain have rights? Surely not.

Perhaps what we need is a broader conception than that of a right, and we find that in the notion of deference. To defer to someone ordinarily means to submit to their wishes, but the term can take a broader significance, as it does in the Daoist (Taoist) tradition in China. To defer to someone, or something, is to refrain from asserting oneself over it. It is to allow it to do what it is already tending to do. One might defer to the flow of a river by refusing to intervene with its course, e.g. by diverting it. The possession by someone of a right— of a negative right, at least— seems to imply that some form of deference is due to them. If I have a right to walk down the street, your obligation not to impede me is a form of deference. But deference is a broader category; there may be instances of appropriate deference that do not involve rights.

Deep ecology seems to imply an imperative to defer to natural processes as much as possible.

Two questions now arise. First: Why ought we to defer to natural processes? And second: How do we determine the degree to which deference is appropriate? The imperative of deference hopefully doesn’t mean that I must allow myself to be eaten by a hungry bear.

A deep-ecologist might answer the first question by saying that the natural environment has intrinsic value. So the cinder-cone, prior to being defaced by the errant hiker, had a value that he failed to acknowledge, and this is what makes his action wrong. Those who spend much time outdoors may describe natural features as having a numinous quality. This kind of experience may be responsible for certain places taking on a sacred character in the eyes of indigenous people. So we might suppose that the value of the environment lies in the possibility of its exhibiting such a numinous quality.

I find a different approach more satisfying, however— and again I appeal to Daoist sensibilities. Rather than focusing on the value of some particular element in nature, like a mountain, we might say that it is the processes of nature generally that require our deference. But this still leaves open the question of what argument might be made for such a deep-ecological principle.

We might observe in response that fundamental moral values are difficult to argue for, and that we encounter the same difficulty with every attempt to enlarge the sphere of moral concern. It is difficult to persuade an egoist that she ought to care for others; we might also have trouble explaining to a speciesist why the welfare of animals matters. But I hope we are not stuck with this kind of impasse.

I wish now to re-introduce the possibility of a theistic approach. Theism holds that nature is an expression of divine activity, and this ought to cause the theist to show the same sort of deference to the natural environment that a Daoist would show to it. If I come upon Rembrandt in the act of painting, I will be very cautious about doing anything that might interfere with his work. In addition, understanding God as being active in nature will account for the possibility of seeing nature as the domain of the numinous.

Given its commitment to divine creation, the environmental ethic that is most consistent with theism is not anthropocentrism but deep ecology.

But what of the second problem we noticed above; hopefully the theist is not committed to complete non-interference in the workings of nature. Is there a principle which will allow us to balance our deference to nature with some degree of self-assertion? I believe there is— and it comes with the understanding that we ourselves are part of nature. Given this fact, deference to nature, as it is embodied in us, requires us to intervene in non-human processes. We must balance our deference to non-human nature with some degree of self-assertion.

What principle governs this balance? Here I can give only a brief answer: The deep ecologist, theistic or otherwise, must give careful thought to what constitutes real human welfare, and what is necessary for human beings to realize their own distinctive good. On this subject, I’m inclined to agree with Aristotle, who identified the human good with the life of reason. If Aristotle is right about this, we might shudder in horror at the difference between the degree to which we currently exploit nature, and what is truly required for the genuine well-being of humanity.

David Corner
Department of Philosophy 
Sacramento State

Sunday, March 1, 2015

When being rational is intolerable

Jefferson described trial by jury as “the only anchor ever yet imagined by man, by which government can be held to the principles of its constitution.”[1] It is a bulwark against tyranny – speedy public trial by a jury of one’s peers limits the opportunity for abuse which thrives behind closed doors, in private bargaining, absent independent oversight, when the power of the state is directed at a single individual.

The US is unique among other liberal democracies to have embraced plea bargaining as the principal means of settling criminal cases, and with such fervor.  By 2013 97% of felony cases at the federal level were settled by plea agreements. That means only 3% of felony cases ever go to trial. Recent statistics indicate that the average sentence for a plea deal is 5.6 years, while the average sentence for conviction at trial on the same charge is 16 years. Federal data from 2004 indicates the likelihood of conviction at trial averages at 68% (with a low of 45% for assault, 70% for murder, and high of 74% for vehicle theft).[2]

From the point of view of the prosecutor, securing a plea arrangement is ideal. Plea arrangements typically trade a lesser charge than the evidence might support in exchange for a guilty plea from the accused. This ensures that the guilty is punished for their crime, but spares the state the costs of trial. Typically, the longer an accused refuses a plea offer, the more severe the charge becomes. So, it is in the interest of the accused to plead guilty earlier rather than later.

From the point of view of the accused, the offer of a plea may also be ideal, a release from the burden of having to fight a conviction she is very likely to lose. Pleading guilty to a lesser charge is preferable to risking a mandatory minimum sentence on a more severe charge. She has the burden of serving some time, but not as much as would be the case were she to lose at trial under mandatory sentencing. For the guilty accused, this can be very sweet indeed.

What if the accused is factually innocent?

The US criminal justice system has become such that even innocent accused are irrational not to plead guilty to a crime they did not commit. The risk of trial is great, especially given the power of the prosecutor to determine the charge, recommend bail and at what cost, and to determine the direction of the investigation. Public defenders, what most felony accused rely upon for representation, are at a serious disadvantage in all regards. Death row exonerations indicate a false conviction rate of 4.1% at trial.[3] Unlike convictions at trial, plea bargains are rarely appealed – the basis for an appeal being moot in the presence of a “confession” in a plea agreement.  However, according to the Innocence Project, “more than 1 out of 4 people wrongfully convicted but later exonerated by DNA evidence made a false confession or incriminating statement.”[4]  With a prison population of over 2.2 million, even a conservative estimate of 3% indicates 66,000 innocent people are imprisoned for crimes they did not commit.

For the innocent accused, she knows the risk of going to trial is great. She knows if she is convicted at trial, her sentence would likely be triple the sentence offered in a plea, more if she takes a plea early enough. She also knows that, under mandatory sentencing, the judge has no room to mitigate the sentence. She also knows that the vast majority of convictions come on circumstantial evidence and that, if there is a witness, he is more than likely to misidentify her as the guilty party. If the accused doesn’t know this, her attorney certainly does. She knows that if she opts for a trial, it will be months (sometimes years) away, time which she will spend in jail awaiting trial, or if she can afford it, on bail.

Surely it cannot be reasonable for a society to accept false guilty pleas at this rate, if at all.

For one thing, it means that the factually guilty party has not been caught, convicted and punished. For every crime settled by plea agreement of an innocent, there is a crime unsolved and criminal unpunished and undeterred.

For another, it raises questions about the fairness of the criminal justice system, making a myth of the idea of “having one’s day in court.” If the risk of trial is such as to render it in one’s rational self-interest to plead guilty, then that day in court comes at a huge personal and financial cost and great risk. That seems not to have been the idea behind the 6th Amendment guarantee of a speedy public trial by peers.

Further, too many members of the community believe themselves immune to this problem. But, by the most conservative estimate the prisons are filled with individuals who once believed the same about themselves. It is too easy to stick one’s head in the sand in the belief that only bad people are arrested in the first place, so if the accused isn’t guilty of this crime, then they are surely guilty of something else. Best to have them off the streets regardless. This belief might soothe, until the police and prosecutor knock at one’s own door.

There is something fundamentally wrong about this. The structure of the criminal justice system in the US renders it rational to do what is completely unreasonable to do. It cannot be reasonable, nor tolerable, to expect someone to profess guilt when they are innocent simply to avoid a worse outcome. And, when it is… well, that is the clearest indication that there is something gravely wrong with the institution and with the society which tolerates it.

Christina Bellon
Department of Philosophy
Sacramento State

[1] Jefferson, “Letter to Thomas Paine, 11 July 1789”, in The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, vol. III, Ed. H.A. Washington, New York: 1859, p. 71; available at
[2] Bureau of Justice Statistics, “Quick Facts: What is the Probability of Conviction for Felony Defendants?” accessed Mar 1, 2015. See
[3] Gross, et. al., “Rate of false conviction of criminal defendants who are sentenced to death,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol: 111, no. 20, 7230-7235. Available at
[4] Innocence Project, “Causes of Wrongful Convictions: False Confessions or Admissions”, accessed Mar 1, 2015. See more at: