I’m looking through you

I enjoyed this trippy, riffing and rambling reflection from John Van Sloten at Think Christian: “Spiritual perception and the science of color.” It’s half sermon illustration, half stoner epiphany.

I probably enjoyed the stoner-ish aspects more, but Von Slaten’s sermon ain’t bad either. He writes:

Dogs are bi-chromates, meaning their eyes have two cones enabling them to see blue/yellow and black/white, while most humans are tri-chromates, enabling us to see many more colors. Some butterflies have five cones and can see an even broader range. The mantis shrimp, amazingly, has sixteen cones! If all these different species might be looking at the same thing, some would see more colors than others, who, “though seeing, they do not see.”

We can’t perceive the colors that a mantis shrimp can perceive. And thus we find it impossible to conceive of them either. Those colors are, to us, like up and down are to a Flatlander.

As Keanu would say, “Whoa.”

She sees colors that you can't even imagine.

I like where Van Sloten wants to go with this as a theological analogy. Theology, like cosmology, requires us to think about things we’re not quite capable of thinking about — ideas that confront us with the tri-chromate, Flatlander limitations of our kind (“infinity,” for example). When it comes to understanding God, he writes, “we’re a few cones short of full perceptive capacity” and “we must be missing most of what’s really going on.”

The playwright of Job would certainly agree with that.

I do want to quibble, though, with Von Slaten’s suggestion that this lack of “full perceptive capacity” is “because of sin.”

We humans have all sorts of shortcomings that have nothing to do with sin or sinfulness. Sin and sinfulness may be part of the human condition, and they can certainly cloud our perception, but we shouldn’t confuse sin with finitude and fallibility. Nor should we mistakenly think of finitude and fallibility as being sinful.

This is kind of important. If we believe that human misperceptions and misconceptions and incomplete (and thus inaccurate) comprehensions are mainly due to sin, then we’re tempted to conclude that anyone who is fallible is therefore evil. But if we believe that misperceptions, misconceptions and incomplete comprehensions are an unavoidable aspect of the human condition, then we’re encouraged to regard others with more empathy, and to realize that we need each other to improve our own, finite and fallible perspectives.

An emphasis on human sinfulness leads us to avoid the wicked temptation of engaging diverse perspectives. An emphasis on fallibility and finitude leads us to seek out and value diverse perspectives as a necessary corrective of our own blind-men-and-the-elephant limitations. I prefer the latter.

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  • Anton_Mates


    I mean, these are probably the best eyes in existence. As far as we can tell they use them for…pretty much nothing, too.

    Oh, hardly.  Mantis shrimp have a complicated system of visual signals that they use in courtship and territorial interactions; they fluoresce, for instance and do semaphore wavy things with their brightly-colored and polarized paddles and tails.  They’re also visual predators, and are preyed on in turn by lots of other things.  Including octopi and cuttlefish, which are very good at camouflaging themselves.  Mantis shrimp have very good reasons to have good vision.

    I would guess that the courtship function is what’s led to them having insanely good vision.  One of those runaway sexual selection things.

  • Anton_Mates

    The thing that is hard about understanding color is this: the physical
    reality of color, what actually exists in the objective physical world,
    is linear. A line.

    That’s the physical reality of color for a single photon, at least.  But a visual image is based on hundreds or thousands of photons hitting each spot on your retina, so the physical reality of color in that case actually isn’t linear–it’s more like a histogram, where at any given time you have a given distribution of photons along that frequency axis.

    Our visual system basically measures two properties of the shape of this distribution, which results in our 2-D color vision experience.  A critter with more color receptors could measure more properties, all of which would be objective and physical.

    Consider: The two colors at opposite ends of the spectrum are red and
    violet. The color dead in the center is green. So, picture it in your
    head: what color is halfway between red and violet?

    That’s a trick question.  If you think of color as a frequency histogram, “red” and “violet” each correspond to a spike at a particular frequency.  Finding the color halfway between them depends on how you define “halfway.”  You can pick a frequency halfway in between them and put a spike there–that’s what gives you green.  Or you can average their distributions and put two small spikes at the original red and violet frequencies–that’s what gives you magenta.  The two distributions might be centered around the same point on the frequency spectrum, but their shapes are very different–one big spike in the middle versus two little spikes to the left and right–and we can pick up on that.

    A mantis shrimp might be able to do the same with much more complicated color combinations.  Mix chartreuse, lavender and aquamarine, versus vermilion, forest green and a dash of sky blue.  With the right mix of each you could come up with something humans judge to be “yellowish-white,” but a mantis shrimp might view them as corresponding to completely different points on the 7th or 13th dimension of their colorspace.